Political Insider

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In GOP race for Senate, 'outsider' no longer means what you thought it did

As far as Jack Kingston is concerned, the era of the Washington outsider in Georgia politics ended within a few hems and haws of 1:11 p.m. Wednesday, high in a tower on the spine of Buckhead.

Presumably, the altitude of the press conference was intended to starve participants – journalists, in particular -- of not just oxygen, but memory as well.

Post-election endorsements are always awkward affairs in which the losing candidate must find a way to retract all the nasty things uttered about one’s new BFF.

The gathering that highlighted Karen Handel’s embrace of Kingston, a 20-year member of Congress, over political neophyte David Perdue in the GOP runoff for U.S. Senate was no different.

Possibly, somewhere in ancient history or a few weeks ago, Handel did condemn Kingston and two other members of Congress in the race as ineffective lumps of inside-the-Beltway clay.

“Are you happy with the way Washington is functioning? Well, the surest way to get more of the same is to keep electing the same people,” she just might have asked, as she sought – and won – much of the tea party vote.

But on Wednesday, the former secretary of state said her doubts about Kingston’s lengthy D.C. resume were pushed aside by 74 percent of Republican voters in the Savannah congressman’s First District – who voted for their man, and knocked Handel out of the race.

“An extraordinarily positive job performance rating,” Handel declared.

Clearly, Perdue's January gaffe, in which the former CEO of Dollar General publicly noted that Handel's formal education was limited to a high school diploma and some college courses, also played a role in her choice. Handel wouldn't say as much, but Kingston did.

"Her achievement and her ownership in the American Dream should never be dimissed and never should be belittled," Kingston said.

But the real turn came after the formal remarks, when a reporter asked Handel how she squared her campaign as an outsider with her endorsement of the only Washington veteran left in the race.

“First, I’m not sure what that really means – quote, outsider,” she said, punctuating the word with her fingers. “Secondly, I’m pretty sure I never used that in my campaign.”

Actually, you can see that Handel’s campaign website used the phrase “outsider” at least once, to describe her unsuccessful, 2010 race for governor. But her favorite cudgel was the phrase “career politician,” which apparently has also been pushed into retirement.

Kingston, she said, is now “someone who has the experience to hit the ground running.”

So what’s all this about?

In fact, you are witnessing one of the more admirable maneuvers of the 2014 campaign. Elsewhere in the nation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and tea party forces in open war.

The Kingston campaign is attempting to knit the two enemies together. Handel and her followers represent a good chunk of the tea party movement in Georgia. The U.S. Chamber has already endorsed Kingston over Perdue, who on the surface might seem the more natural fit.

The business group spent nearly $1 million on Kingston in the primary, and has already reserved more than $500,000 in airtime through mid-June.

“This is a family discussion, and we’ve got to stay united,” Kingston said Wednesday.

To unite his family, the Savannah congressman is executing a shift in Georgia’s political vocabulary. Heretofore, “outsider” has meant someone who resides external to the evil confines of the District of Columbia. A good thing.

Witness the word from Perdue campaign spokesman Derrick Dickey, after Handel’s endorsement of Kingston: “David has always been the only true outsider in this race. He’s providing a real alternative to the typical politicians that have created a mess in Washington.”

But to Kingston, this definition is now outdated. In his camp, “outsider” now means someone beyond the GOP fold. A bad thing.

Despite the fact that his cousin is a former governor, David Perdue's recent history in Georgia stretches back only to 2009. His voting history includes only two GOP presidential primaries.

GOP runoffs have traditionally been low-turnout affairs populated by hardcore, dues-paying activists. Kingston noted that he and Handel are both members of that club.

“She and I came up through the precinct level as Republicans. We have stuffed envelopes. We have made phone calls. We have put up yard signs,” Kingston said. “We have voted in Republican primaries and have been in the Republican trenches for many years.”

At least for the next eight weeks, it’s cool to be an insider again.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.