ATLANTA—In the last few months, the polls in this state's divisive Republican primary turned upside-down. It was a five-way free-for-all featuring three conservative members of Congress, each more right-wing than the last; a former secretary of state known nationally for trying to separate the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer foundation from Planned Parenthood; and a One Percenter from a political dynasty seeking to brand himself the biggest threat to the status quo.
It is the last of these—David Perdue, a former globe-trotting management consultant and CEO of a sneaker manufacturer (Reebok) and a discount-store chain (Dollar General), and a cousin of the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Sonny Perdue—whose appeal finally proved the most persuasive to the GOP voters in this red but rapidly urbanizing state. Languishing at fifth in the polls as recently as February, Perdue came in first in Tuesday night's primary, taking about 30 percent of the vote with 95 percent of precincts reporting late Tuesday.
Perdue is not done fighting his fellow Republicans yet. Since he didn't get 50 percent of the vote, he now faces Representative Jack Kingston, a 22-year congressional veteran who took second place with 26 percent, in a July runoff. Karen Handel, the fiery former Komen leader, made a late surge as conservatives' last hope, but fell short with 22 percent. The defeats of Handel and two far-right members of Congress, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, made the Georgia result a bitter one for conservatives, who lack a clear standard-bearer in the runoff.
Accepting this preliminary victory before it was clear who he would face in the runoff, Perdue told supporters Tuesday night: "One thing we did do tonight, we retired three career politicians—and we've got one more to go." If he prevails, he will face Michelle Nunn, a former nonprofit executive who's considered national Democrats' strongest new candidate this year, in November. As a testament to the swiftness of his rise, Perdue does not yet have a Wikipedia page.
Perdue's sudden popularity confounds the running tally in Washington, where scorekeepers are trying to mark down every GOP primary as a win for either the Tea Party or the Republican establishment. Perdue's pedigreed profile, as well as some conciliatory rhetoric on budget issues, would seem to put him in the latter category. But he has styled himself an antagonist of all things Washington and labeled his opponents "career politicians." In a debate over the weekend, Perdue pledged not to support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to lead the Republican caucus. At an election-eve rally at a private-jet hangar outside Atlanta on Monday, Perdue was joined by Herman Cain, the scandal-tarred former presidential candidate, who still hosts a popular conservative talk-radio program in Atlanta.
"The reason I support David Perdue is real simple," Cain told the crowd. "He is not going to become a part of the status-quo establishment. What we need most are people who are not afraid to rock the boat, to solve problems and put bold ideas on the table." In a typically nonsensical Cainian flourish, he concluded: "Someone asked me last week, 'Why are you supporting David Perdue?' My answer was real simple: There's no better choice!"
The principal reason for Perdue's rise was a clever campaign ad. Made by Fred Davis, the man behind John McCain's ad deeming Barack Obama a "celebrity" akin to Paris Hilton in 2008, the Perdue spot opened with a scene of four crying babies, names printed on their white onesies. "Jack" held a pair of glasses, "Paul" and "Phil" toyed with stethoscopes (Broun and Gingrey are physicians), and "Karen" wore pearls. "Help me change the childish behavior up there," Perdue said, as a picture of the Capitol lawn crawling with crying babies flashed onscreen.
The gimmick was a sensation, and Perdue has repeated the motif in ads since then. The babies also are pictured on the RV in which he's been touring the state. When I asked Perdue if the ad had been a game-changer, he said it had, and repeated a line from its script: "I'm running against four politicians with 63 years in office between them," he said. "If they were going to make a difference, they would have done so by now. The babies are memorable, they're subliminal, but the message is also strong."