Neither Republican running in Georgia's closely watched Senate race has a natural advantage in metro Atlanta, where the state's most populous area and a ring of northern exurbs are serving as the key battleground ahead of Tuesday's runoff.
Both Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue have been spending a major portion of their time and money wooing voters along the busy stretches of Interstates 75 and 85 just before they merge south of downtown Atlanta and then as they split off heading for north Georgia and some of the most Republican parts of the state.
It marks a gigantic "X" on the map, and both campaigns are zeroed in on running up their support in the area. Kingston spent all day Friday in the northern Atlanta suburbs and was back again on Sunday. Perdue, who has spent over $3 million of his personal fortune to finance his campaign, has been crisscrossing all of north Georgia and the northern suburbs and exurbs of Atlanta as part of an RV tour launched nearly two weeks ago.
"It's up for grabs," said veteran Republican strategist Chip Lake, noting that up to 70 percent of GOP primary voters live within the metro Atlanta media market which covers much of north Georgia.
Certainly, no candidate can ignore metro Atlanta and north Georgia and have any hope of winning a statewide election. But the dynamics of this particular race, which has already garnered national attention as Republicans seek control of the Senate, means the election will likely be won or lost based on what happens there.
Kingston, a well-liked congressman in his Savannah district, dominated coastal counties in the May primary. Overall, Kingston finished second to Perdue among a crowded field of Republicans. The winner of Tuesday's runoff will face Michelle Nunn, considered one of the top Democratic recruits in the country and among the best hopes for Democrats seeking to keep a Senate majority.
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With a competitive primary for Kingston's current seat in Congress, turnout is expected to be strong along the coast and Kingston will have to run up the numbers like he did during the primary when he claimed 78 percent of the vote in his home base of Chatham County. But the coastal areas alone can't carry him across the finish line, and Kingston will have to perform very well in metro Atlanta and north Georgia.
"Jack Kingston can still win statewide without winning those areas," Lake said. "He just needs to run up his margins on the coast and he needs to make sure that even though he's not winning in those north Georgia counties, he's not losing by a wide margin."
Perdue, who hails from middle Georgia but has a home on the coast, did very well in north Georgia during the primary, capturing a majority of counties across the area. Although it's his first political campaign, his cousin is former Gov. Sonny Perdue and his campaign and advisers are all veterans of state politics.
Perdue knows he must build on his primary vote totals and broaden his base of support. Meanwhile, Kingston has smartly collected endorsements from two of their former rivals with broad metro Atlanta support who finished third and fourth in the primary.
Kingston is banking on those endorsements to help him cut into Perdue's lead, while Perdue has been using those endorsements to hammer Kingston as the establishment candidate who's been in Washington too long.
Kingston and Perdue are both appealing almost exclusively to conservative voters, even though voters in Georgia don't register by party and Democratic-leaning voters can vote in the runoff as long as they didn't cast votes in the Democratic primary in May.
A key gateway between metro Atlanta and north Georgia is Flowery Branch, home of the Atlanta Falcons training camp. Perdue carried Hall County in the primary with about 38 percent of the vote to Kingston's 19 percent. On a recent weekday, Perdue stumped for votes at Curt's Cafeteria, a local institution serving traditional Southern fare.
JoAnne Stone of nearby Gainesville was among those looking to speak with the candidate and talk about his fiscal policies.
"I liked the fact that he's not a politician and he has high-level international business experience," said Stone, who is co-owner of an insurance agency. "And he knows how to balance a budget."
The following day, Kingston made campaign stops along an arc just south of downtown Atlanta, in Henry, Fayette and Coweta counties. Perdue won all three during the primary, while Kingston finished third behind former Secretary of State Karen Handel. She has since endorsed him.
Marilyn Watts, a real estate broker and appraiser from unincorporated Fayette County, voted for Handel during the primary and was among those attending a meet-and-greet with Kingston at a coffee shop in Peachtree City.
"He is a true conservative like Karen and he has a record to run on, which will give you a clue as to what he will do in the future," Watts said. "His opponent has no record. All we know is what he tells us."
Most of the early votes in the runoff have been received, though mail-in absentee ballots can still be cast, according to Georgia Secretary of State Jack Kemp. Kemp said in a statement Monday that 159,152 ballots have already been cast. The campaigns say they expect around 450,000 to 500,000 ballots in the runoff, compared to the 605,000 ballots cast in the initial seven-candidate primary.
Voters on Tuesday will not only cast ballots in the Senate runoff, but also in several other races, including four U.S. House runoffs and party runoffs for state school superintendent.