David Perdue's lesson in damage control

Georgia Senate candidate David Perdue is getting an education in damage control after making derisive comments about his opponent’s lack of a college degree. 

The wealthy businessman had been starting to build a lead in public polls and it appeared that he was on his way towards winning a spot in the two-person primary runoff. But that was before video surfaced of him attacking former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel’s (R ) qualifications. 

ADVERTISEMENT
“It's a major gaffe,” Georgia Republican strategist and state blogger Todd Rehm told The Hill. “I think five candidates have conceivable paths to a runoff and David Perdue, who had the clearest path, just made his a lot more complicated.”

Footage obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week from a January GOP captured the now-infamous slight. 

I mean, there's a high school graduate in this race, OK? I'm sorry, but these issues are so much broader, so complex,” said Perdue. "There's only one candidate in this race that's ever lived outside the United States. How can you bring value to a debate about the economy unless you have any understanding about the free enterprise system and how — what it takes to compete in the global economy?"

The remarks drew rebukes from across the political spectrum, including an entire segment on Fox News’s “The Five” ripping Perdue. 

“One of the reasons you have a primary is to figure out who's going to be your best candidate to run against an opponent. I think the voters in Georgia who are going to vote in the Republican primary have their answer: Not him,” former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said on the show.

Now, his wayward comments have injected additional element of chaos into an already-unstable GOP field. Establishment Republicans, worried about nominating a flawed candidate like Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) or Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), have been crossing their fingers that Perdue — a cousin to former Gov. Sonny Perdue — and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) would make it to the runoff. 

But now Perdue’s stock has fallen while Handel’s may be rising, shaking up the field ahead of the May 20 primary.

Handel has been on the warpath since Perdue’s remarks surfaced, attacking him in releases and the local media. She got a big boost from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who joined Handel for campaign events on Thursday and didn’t mince words toward Perdue. 

“There are a lot of good, hard-working Americans who have more common sense in their pinky finger than a lot of those Ivy League pieces of paper up on a wall,” she said. 

Handel’s campaign has continued to take shots at the wealthy former Dollar General CEO, tweaking him for his big campaign spending and expensive home.

“If there's anything our party has learned the last couple cycles is what happens when we nominate un-vetted candidates,” Handel campaign manager Corry Bliss told The Hill on Friday. “Mr. Perdue fails to understand this is an election, not an auction, and it seems that he has an utter disdain for anyone who doesn't live behind a gate in Sea Island.”

Perdue’s campaign admits the comments have been a setback, but argue it will blow over.

“David didn't mean to offend anyone with his comments. We'd absolutely rather be talking about debt and the economy and who's best ready to tackle those two issues,” said Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey. “He was not born in the corner office, he worked his way there, and he grew up the son of two teachers in middle Georgia… he took risks in a free-market system and he succeeded and that's what anyone in this country is looking for the same kind of opportunities and those are the opportunities David wants to ensure are continued for everyone.”

Handel is clearly the big winner from the fight — she’s stirred up her base, and her campaign says has raised more than $150,000 already since Palin endorsed her last week. Gingrey, the only other candidate with the money to start spending heavily in Atlanta’s expensive media market, could also benefit if Perdue slips.

But Democrats are thrilled about the shake-up as well. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted around an email featuring local TV coverage of the gaffe. They were already excited about Democrat Michelle Nunn’s campaign, hoping Republicans nominate a flawed candidate and give her an additional boost in the red state. 

Few say the remarks, by themselves, will sink Perdue. The self-funding candidate has been on the air for more than a month boosting his name identification. He and Kingston are the only ones who have been able to spend statewide on ads, giving them an advantage at this point in the race. 

And Handel, who’s struggled in fundraising, may not have the money to air attack ads against Perdue.

Kingston declined to weigh in on Perdue’s remarks when asked about it by The Hill on Thursday, and Broun has continued his attacks on Kingston, releasing a new ad on Friday parodying Kingston’s latest TV spot.

But the biggest worry for Perdue’s campaign is whether he’s made other gaffes, and whether this misstep gives his opponents more traction to attack him for job losses at his less successful business ventures, like the closure of the North Carolina company Pillowtex shortly after he left as CEO.

“He has 41 years of private-sector experience and has the scars to show for it and some will come out in this campaign, but that's what happens when you've been in the private sector and not running for political office,” said Dickey.