Senate race starts attracting wild cards on GOP side

But Democrats feel their candidate must have universal party support

Even as the pieces fall into their expected places for next year’s U.S. Senate race, wild cards are emerging. This morning, it was some guy named David Perdue, a business executive who also happens to be the cousin of a certain former Georgia governor. The ex-CEO of Dollar General–as in, “Stores”–Perdue hasn’t yet officially jumped in, but announced his plan to spend the next several weeks “exploring” his chances.

If he does enter the race to replace Saxby Chambliss, he’ll be running as–wait for it–a Republican, which would put him in an already heady primary field that so far includes congressmen Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta, and Jack Kingston of Savannah. Karen Handel, Georgia’s former Secretary of State, also is widely expected to throw her hat in the ring, now that U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, finally has made clear that he won’t leave his seat to run for the soon-vacant Senate post.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have been trying to show that they haven’t been knocked back on their heels by John Barrow’s decision not to shoot for Saxby’s seat. When the Democratic congressman from Augusta made his surprise announcement last week, someone immediately leaked a poll purporting to show that Barrow wasn’t as appealing a candidate as the largely unknown Michelle Nunn, daughter of Sam and a non-profit executive who, it should be noted, hasn’t entered the Senate race either.

Today, Better Georgia, a progressive group not officially linked to the Democratic Party, released its own poll indicating that Nunn could defeat Handel and run competitively against the GOP congressmen. Pollsters didn’t anticipate a candidacy by a Perdue, Sonny or otherwise.

Speaking of which, Handel is considered something of a protégé of the former governor, but her ex-mentor is now backing his cousin, having issued a release calling for voters to “shock the political establishment” by supporting David Perdue. It’s difficult to know what such an endorsement is worth these days. Even when he was still governor, Sonny fell out of favor with many Republicans, who openly joined in the derision heaped on hapless proposals like “Go Fish.” Since leaving office, he’s become nearly invisible and, arguably, largely forgotten.

Democrats likely also are worried that a primary-race vacuum could attract an unwanted candidate along the lines of a Thurbert Baker or, heaven forefend, a Vernon Jones. The former state Attorney General, who isn’t especially popular in his own party, has already shown he doesn’t mind playing the spoiler, as in the 2010 gubernatorial primary race against the establishment-blessed Roy Barnes. And ex-DeKalb CEO Jones, who is nothing if not a political free radical, ran for the Senate in 2008 before losing the primary to veteran lawmaker Jim Martin.

This time out, Democratic strategists all seem to agree, the party can’t afford a contentious primary. Everyone’s got to be singing the same tune–against the nutty Paul Broun, with any luck. We should soon find out if Michelle Nunn will be leading the choir.