By Daniel Malloy and Aaron Gould Sheinin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (MCT)
ATLANTA — Republican David Perdue, a businessman who was virtually unknown in political circles just 18 months ago, will be Georgia’s next United States senator.
The Fortune 500 CEO bested Democrat Michelle Nunn in a heated, tightly contested race that was by far the most expensive Senate contest in state history.
Perdue thanked the state’s voters for propelling him into the Senate without a runoff, as Libertarian Amanda Swafford did not pull away much of the vote.
“We took our message around the state, and it resonated and it worked,” Perdue said. “Because it was sincere. It was from the heart. More importantly, it was from your heart.
“And that’s what the people of this country and this state, that’s what they’re hearing tonight. But I want to remind you: Tonight we start a new journey to set a new course for America.”
As Perdue spoke, Fox News — projected on a large screen to his right — officially called the U.S. Senate to flip to Republican hands, prompting a raucous cheer and chants of “U.S.A.” from the crowd.
The GOP wave had washed through Georgia.
“We’ll get those 300 bills off of Harry Reid’s desk,” Perdue said, reprising a stump speech line about the outgoing majority leader stalling House-passed legislation. Perdue said an all-Republican Congress’ agenda should include corporate tax reform and tackling the long-term debt, along with addressing immediate crises like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Ebola.
Nunn told a disappointed crowd in downtown Atlanta that she called Perdue and “offered him my great congratulations.” But she said Democrats, who mounted the stiffest fight Republicans have faced in years, have much to be proud of.
“We have changed politics in Georgia,” she said. “Not just tonight. We’ve reminded people of what a two-party system looks like and a civil dialogue. We’ve lifted up and advocated issues that matter, whether it’s increasing the minimum wage, pay equity for women, bipartisan immigration reform.
“These are issues that we have lifted up and will continue to lift up.”
Democrats have much work to do, she said.
“We put Georgia in play,” Nunn said. “We built a foundation that needs to be cultivated, that needs to be built upon.”
A few miles away in festive Buckhead, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok laughed as he spoke of the long, strange trip that brought him to high office.
“Donors, some of you got the calls last year and the first words out of your mouth were ‘David, what are you thinking?'” Perdue said.
Perdue takes the place of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, whose January 2013 retirement announcement launched a frenzied two years of campaigning.
At that point, Perdue and Nunn were political novices who had never sought office before, yet they carried famous names: Perdue’s cousin, Sonny, was a two-term governor and Nunn’s father, Sam, was a four-term U.S. senator.
The Democrat breezed through a primary against three underfunded foes. Perdue entered late against three sitting congressmen and Georgia’s former secretary of state, but backed by millions of dollars of his own money and an “outsider” image untainted by political baggage.
Perdue bested GOP establishment forces who lined up behind Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah in a nine-week Republican runoff. Then as soon as he won in July, the Nunn campaign and Democratic allies unloaded blistering attacks on Perdue’s business record.
A 2005 deposition from Perdue was leaked in October and included the line that Perdue “spent most of my career” outsourcing. It fit with the Democrats’ narrative and prompted renewed scrutiny on Perdue, particularly when he said he was “proud” of his career and denied outsourcing jobs — only products and services.
The election came down to a battle of O’s — Outsourcing vs. Obama. Perdue tied President Barack Obama to Nunn any chance he got, along with Reid.
Big names flocked to Georgia, including past and future White House contenders from both parties eyeing a potential 2016 swing state.
Nunn appeared with her father and former Gov. Zell Miller in the campaign’s final weeks to try to reinforce a centrist message and used the word “bipartisan” almost as much as Perdue used “Obama,” but it was not enough.