By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A former Fortune 500 executive who campaigned as a Washington outsider defeated an 11-term congressman on Tuesday in a key Republican runoff election in Georgia, setting the stage for November's race to fill an open Senate seat.
Keeping the seat once held by veteran Democrat Sam Nunn in the Republican column is seen as crucial to the party's efforts at seizing majority control of the Senate from the Democrats. David Perdue, a former chief executive of Reebok, Dollar General and Pillowtex, led U.S. Representative Jack Kingston by nearly 8,000 votes, with 92 percent of the state's counties reporting, before Kingston conceded his loss.
"The numbers are not trending in our direction and they're probably not going to change," Kingston told supporters about four hours after polls closed.
Perdue will now face Democrat Michelle Nunn, Sam Nunn's daughter, in the November general election for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss.
Nunn's father served 24 years in the Senate, including a stint as chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, until he retired at the end of 1996.
His immediate successor, Democrat Max Cleland, was unseated by Chambliss in 2002.
"We’re going to win this fall," Perdue told his backers in a victory speech late Tuesday.
Perdue had criticized Kingston as a Washington insider who voted to add trillions of dollars to the national debt and to raise his own salary seven times.
Kingston sought to cast Perdue, who lives on Georgia's exclusive Sea Island, as a wealthy elitist.
When Kingston questioned the propriety of Perdue's 2010 appointment to the Georgia Ports Authority by his cousin, then-Governor Sonny Perdue, his opponent fired back that Kingston had failed in 17 years to obtain funding necessary to deepen the Port of Savannah.
Voters seemed split over whether a political veteran or newcomer would best serve them.
“Experience matters,” said Kingston supporter Taton Thompson, 24, of Savannah. “When you go to Washington, you need to know what to do, you need to know how to pass legislation.”
But Don Cole, 60, a self-employed businessman from Cordele, said he wanted a senator who had not been influenced for years by lobbyists.
"Perdue comes in with a fresh perspective and he’s not tied down by all that," Cole said.
Perdue and Kingston edged out more conservative Tea Party candidates in the May 20 Republican primary, drawing nearly 31 percent and 26 percent of the vote respectively to advance to Tuesday's one-on-one runoff.
Analysts said either man would have posed a strong challenge to Nunn, the well-financed Democratic nominee and former chief executive officer of former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light philanthropic organization.
(Reporting by David Beasley; Editing by Steve Gorman, Colleen Jenkins and Gareth Jones)