GAINESVILLE - At the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains sits one of the most Republican congressional districts in the country that is home to Georgia's governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House.
The 9th Congressional District and the nearby 14th district are considered the heart of the GOP in Georgia and will be key battlegrounds in a fiercely contested Republican primary next year for an open U.S. Senate seat, a race that will be watched nationally as Democrats look to thwart efforts by Republicans to take control of the Senate.
While not as populous or packed with deep-pocket donors as metro Atlanta, the two districts in north Georgia offer a strong and reliable base of fiscal and social conservatives and are largely up for grabs considering no major candidate has a direct link to the area.
"The candidate that can best go up there and make their case to voters that they should be worthy of their support will be the Republican nominee," said Chip Lake, a metro Atlanta-based political consultant who worked on the 2012 campaign of Rep. Doug Collins in the 9th District.
When U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Moultrie, announced earlier this year that he would retire at the end of his term, it set off an avalanche of interest as Georgia party members look to solidify support while state Democrats work to rebound after losing every statewide office in 2010. The crowded GOP field includes three popular congressmen, a former secretary of state who narrowly lost the 2010 gubernatorial primary, and a well-connected businessman willing to spend some of his own money on the race.
The two districts spread across the northern part of the state. The 9th district is known for its poultry plants in Hall County and lakeside vacation and retirement communities, while the 14th district has a manufacturing core anchored by the carpet industry in Dalton. Both have a sizeable tea party contingent, are largely white and supported Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney with a much wider margin than the state as a whole.
All told, the two districts comprise about 20 percent of the state's Republican voters, according to Lake.
All the top candidates have already made trips and are expected to keep visiting ahead of the May 20 primary. The voters are used to seeing their elected officials and are known for asking tough questions.
"They are a lot like Iowa caucus voters. They expect to see their candidates in the flesh," said Lake, who recently left the Senate campaign of Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta, citing differences in opinion, and is no longer aligned with a candidate in the race.
A number of voters who attended a recent congressional hearing in the 9th district said they remain undecided. Besides Gingrey, the other major candidates are tea party favorite Rep. Paul Broun of Athens; Karen Handel, who has a statewide grassroots organization from her previous campaigns; fundraising leader Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah; and David Perdue, cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue and past CEO of Dollar General and Reebok.
Carol Mahoney and Patricia Falk are active members of a local Republican club at their residential community in Hoschton. Mahoney said she's leaning toward Broun, who spoke to their group.
"He's a conservative, and he strongly opposes Obamacare," Mahoney said of Broun, referring to the Affordable Care Act.
Falk said she had the chance to hear Handel speak and was impressed.
"She was straightforward with her answers, and she knew where she stood," Falk said, adding that she's still evaluating the candidates.
Handel has been working to draw a distinction between herself and the three congressmen, launching the web series "Only in Washington" to make a case that career politicians are part of Washington partisan gridlock. Mahoney said she likes Handel, but doesn't consider Broun who has the backing of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas "part of that Washington group."
There has been some discussion about the danger of nominating a candidate who is too far to the right and could have difficulties appealing to the mainstream in a general election matchup against someone like Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. Michelle Nunn also is running.
Mahoney and Falk said the ability to win the general election is a consideration but not the deciding factor.
Collins, a former state lawmaker who defeated a tea party-backed candidate in last year's GOP primary in the 9th district and later claimed 76 percent of the vote over his Democratic opponent, said concerns about health care, the regulatory burden on businesses and government intrusion will be on his constituents' minds as they weigh candidates.
"Up here in the 9th district, we have what I call the complete conservatism. They are socially conservative, and they are fiscally conservative," Collins said.
As far as who might win, the former Baptist minister, said: "I pray for all of them, say God bless and go at it."
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