LAKE LANIER ISLANDS - Candidates in Georgia's fiercely contested Republican Senate race headed to one of the most solidly Republican areas in the country on Saturday, just days ahead of a primary that could help determine congressional control.
Reps. Paul Broun and Jack Kingston along with Georgia's former Secretary of State Karen Handel worked the crowd at a north Georgia barbecue and fundraiser hosted by Gov. Nathan Deal on the shores of Lake Lanier. The 4th Annual "Grillin' with the Governor" fundraiser was held at Lake Lanier Islands.
Republicans need to gain just six seats to claim a majority in the Senate. They cannot afford to lose the Georgia seat they now hold, which opened when Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced his retirement. Others Republicans in the race are Rep. Phil Gingrey and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue.
"There are a lot of votes in north Georgia, and nobody running for Senate is from one of those districts," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, who attended Deal's annual "Grillin' with the Governor" and will be up for re-election in two years. "It's open territory."
Nearly a quarter of all Republican voters in the 2012 primary live in the two north Georgia congressional districts, and the top three elected state officials - Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and state House speaker David Ralston - call the area home. It's a reliable base of fiscal and social conservatives and has become the state's political power center.
"There is an independence among those in north Georgia; we've always prided ourselves on that," Cagle said. "They judge the candidates, more so than just the party label. A candidate has to appeal to the individual voter."
That has made campaign events like meet-and-greets and candidate forums in the area even more critical for voters like Patricia Falk, president of a GOP group at her residential community in Hoschton.
She has decided to support Handel, who was one of three candidates who spoke to her group.
"I feel as though that I have had more exposure to her, and I liked what I heard," Falk said.
Mary Jones, who runs a horse and dairy farm in Flowery Branch, said she has known Kingston for years.
"He's always been a supporter of the farm community," Jones said. "It's nice to have someone who knows about farming issues."
Meanwhile, Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is likely to advance in her primary against three lesser-known candidates.