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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

Why a reinvigorated Phil Gingrey is good news for Mitch McConnell

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U.S. Senate candidate Phil Gingrey, a Republican congressman from Marietta. Elissa Eubanks, eeubanks@ajc.com

Word came late in the week that Phil Gingrey had reconsidered.

The Marietta congressman, whose hard-right Republican campaign for the U.S. Senate has been rocked by gaffes and staff departures, changed his mind and will participate in a Monday morning debate in downtown Atlanta with five primary rivals.

If you’re Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose hope of seizing control of the chamber in 2015 rides on the backs of electable GOP candidates, this is a good thing.

Really.

Gingrey may be the only Republican in the field who can eat into the strength of the man who drains the optimism from a Republican Washington looking at the mid-term elections: U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens. Whose nomination, Karl Rove and other GOP strategists believe, could give November wings to a well-financed bid by Democrat Michelle Nunn.

They look at checks written to Nunn by former GOP senators Richard Lugar of Indiana and John Warner of Virginia, only part of the $3.3 million she has already raised, and shudder.

But wise GOP heads understand that a “stop Broun” movement in Georgia would only enhance his stature with the grassroots. The best they can hope for is a well-financed competitor who can challenge Broun’s appeal among tea party voters.

So far, that’s Gingrey.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, has more cash, but has earned tea party suspicion because of his membership on the House Appropriations Committee. Former secretary of state Karen Handel has struggled to compete in the fund-raising department. David Perdue, a businessman, is reaching out to independents. Like Perdue, Eugene Yu is a businessman who has never held public office.

But a Gingrey resurgence will require the jump-starting of a campaign that has been off-track for two months. One measure of inactivity: Before Friday, the last email sent out by his campaign to this reporter carried a date of Nov. 26.

Gingrey began his campaign for Senate with credentials nearly as well-polished as Broun’s. Last February, the Club for Growth gave Broun a score of 100 – he was one of only three members of the U.S. House to achieve conservative perfection. Gingrey scored a none-too-shabby 89. (The exiting Saxby Chambliss was awarded a 68.)

But weeks before the official launch of the Gingrey campaign, the man from Marietta made a double-barreled blunder – two gaffes in a single interview — that managed to offend both right and left.

On one hand, Gingrey said he might consider a ban on high-capacity magazines as a means of curbing gun violence, ticking off the National Rifle Association.

The congressman, an obstetrician by profession, also defended abortion-related remarks made by Republican Todd Akin – remarks that were credited with dooming Akin’s GOP run for the U.S. Senate in Missouri in 2012. Among other things, Akin said biological defenses generated by a woman under assault would prevent ovulation —- and thus pregnancy.

Gingrey retracted both statements.

His reputation for ill-judged remarks was revived last September, when Gingrey drew a line in the sand during a private Republican caucus discussion over whether to give congressional staffers access to health care through the Affordable Care Act.

Staffers should suck it up, he said. “In a few years they can just go to K Street and make $500,000 a year,” Gingrey said. “Meanwhile I’m stuck here making $172,000 a year.” His remarks were leaked, of course.

In mid-November, Gingrey gambled: He demanded a first round of TV ads promising to repeal Obamacare “or go home.” The risk was great. Gingrey, at 71, is the oldest of the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate. There was a danger that the ads could serve as an advertisement that Gingrey would be a one-term senator – a killer when it comes to fund-raising.

The ads ran. And the top members of Gingrey’s staff walked out on him.

Earlier this month, Gingrey skipped the first debate of the Senate contest, sponsored by the Georgia GOP. So eyebrows jumped when, initially, he also passed on Monday’s debate at the Atlanta Hilton, sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association.

But Patrick Sebastian, Gingrey’s new campaign manager, now says his candidate will be participating in “most” debates.

“The campaign is in high gear. Phil’s going around the state as the leader in repealing Obamacare,” Sebastian said. “We’ve received tremendous feedback on his repeal-or-go home pledge.”

Gingrey, of course, will insist that he is far more than a spoiler in the GOP race for Senate. His voter approval ratings have been high, and at one point last year, a survey showed him doing better than other GOP candidates in a hypothetical match-up against Nunn.

Moreover, Paul Broun isn’t invulnerable. One Republican strategist reminded me that Broun lost a 1996 Republican bid for U.S. Senate.

But Broun is a formidable campaigner. In Georgia, the Republican establishment has tried to oust Broun three times from his House seat – and failed. Broun’s Friday announcement that he would give a free AR-15 to a supporter was only the latest demonstration that the man knows his audience.

But here’s one last reason certain Republicans want Gingrey to stay in this race: They’re afraid that, in the next few weeks, Democratic money will quietly flow into the GOP side of the Georgia contest – to boost Broun. The tactic has been employed elsewhere.

But with Gingrey still in the race, Democrats might not be able to decide who they’d rather face.

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