ATLANTA — As antiestablishment anger swept other parts of the nation, Georgia Republicans tapped an 18-year congressional veteran dogged by ethics allegations as the party's nominee for governor.
After a bitter runoff that featured nasty attack ads and dueling endorsements from potential 2012 presidential contenders, former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal defeated ex-Secretary of State Karen Handel by 2,489 votes out of more than a half-million cast, according to unofficial returns.
Handel, who had cast herself as an outsider, conceded the race Wednesday, avoiding what could have been a drawn-out recount. Deal now faces a general election battle with Democrat Roy Barnes, a one-term governor who was ousted eight years ago by Republicans.
"The best thing for our party is to rally around Congressman Deal as our nominee in the fight against Roy Barnes," Handel said in a statement. "Barnes would return Georgia to a past that is best kept in our rearview mirror."
Republicans quickly closed ranks around Deal, with Handel leading the way. There was no mention of her campaign attacks when she labeled Deal "a corrupt relic of Washington."
Republicans quickly took aim at Barnes, who also has a lengthy political resume, including 22 years in the Legislature and four in the governor's mansion. Republicans are linking Barnes to the Obama administration, while Barnes argues that Georgia's ruling Republicans are driving the state to ruin.
While Georgia went with a political pedigree, elsewhere in the nation inexperience appeared to be a plus.
In Connecticut, World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon nabbed the GOP senatorial nomination in her first run for office. And appointed Sen. Michael Bennet, of Colorado, won the Democratic nomination over a political veteran. It was Bennet's first time appearing on the ballot.
During the campaign, Handel hammered Deal on ethics allegations and attacked the "good ol' boy" network.
Earlier this year, the Office of Congressional Ethics found Deal may have violated U.S. House rules by lobbying state officials to keep intact a lucrative deal with the state that earned his auto salvage business $1.5 million from 2004 to 2008. Deal stepped down shortly before the office issued its findings to run for governor.
Georgia's revenue commissioner has received a federal subpoena related to his discussions with Deal, who says he has not been told he is the target or subject of a federal investigation.
During the campaign, Deal bashed Handel for being too liberal on abortion and gay rights.
Despite her ties to outgoing Gov. Sonny Perdue, Handel ran as an outsider and was the pick of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. High-wattage political endorsements from Palin and others made Georgia's gubernatorial runoff look like a proving ground for the 2012 presidential race. Ex-presidential contender Mike Huckabee backed Deal as did former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mitt Romney, another 2009 White House contender, supported Handel.
The Palin touch proved not enough to push Handel to the finish line.
After coming in first in the state's seven-person July 20 primary – 11 percentage points ahead of Deal – Handel saw her lead evaporate.
Nathan Deal for Governor: http://www.nathandeal.org
Karen Handel for Governor: http://www.karenhandel.com
Roy Barnes for Governor: http://www.roy2010.com