Senate Democrats are feeling increasingly upbeat about former charity executive Michelle Nunn’s chances in Georgia after a rough week for businessman David Perdue (R).
The GOP nominee is facing heat over revelations that he said in a 2005 legal deposition he had “spent most of [his] career” focused on outsourcing, and didn’t help himself by responding that he was “proud” of that record.
The open-seat Senate race has flown under the national radar in recent months, as most strategists assumed Perdue had the upper hand. But Democrats view the comments as a game-changer — and Republicans concede that their nominee has had a problematic stretch.
“The race has tightened,” admitted Georgia Republican strategist Joel McElhannon. “Dave has taken a few hits here over the last week or two from a very well-coordinated, aggressive campaign.”
Perdue held a lead in most public polls since he won his late July runoff. But two new surveys indicate the race is closer than expected. The Republican leads by one point in an automated SurveyUSA poll released Wednesday and by two in a survey from the Democratic Public Policy Polling on Tuesday, results that match recent private polling.
That drop was recorded before voters even see millions of dollars in ads hitting Perdue for the outsourcing comments.
The controversy stems from a 2005 legal deposition focused on the money he made at Pillowtex, a North Carolina textile company that closed and laid off thousands shortly after he left as CEO in 2003.
"Yeah, I spent most of my career doing that," he said when asked to describe his "experience with outsourcing."
Perdue then walked attorneys through his career helping various countries increase production in Asia, and discussed his goal at Pillowtex of moving production overseas to try to save the company. That never occurred, as the company ended up collapsing before it could do so.
His initial response to the revelations didn’t help put out the fire.
"Defend it? I'm proud of it," he said on Monday when asked by a local reporter about his “career on outsourcing.”
"This is a part of American business, part of any business. Outsourcing is the procurement of products and services to help your business run. People do that all day,” he continued before blaming bad government policies for killing American jobs.
Democrats say the news has altered the race’s trajectory, amplifying their central attack in a potent way.
“David Perdue's comments on outsourcing were the first major mistake he's made during the general election. Georgians will not support anyone who outsources jobs away from hard-working Americans,” said Georgia Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson. “The outsourcing issue is a game-changer.”
Nunn has been on TV with ads featuring laid-off Pillowtex workers painting him as a heartless corporate raider — reminiscent of the strategy Democrats used in 2012 to discredit GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
She was was quick to the air with a new ad this week touting his comments in the legal deposition, and Democrats indicate his “proud” comments will soon be coming to Georgia televisions as well. Perdue responded on Tuesday with a new spot ripping Nunn’s “desperate, untrue attacks” and tying her to President Obama.
The outsourcing attacks could be especially potent in Georgia, which has the highest state-level unemployment in the country at 8.1 percent.
Perdue’s business career has long been an issue for his campaign. A number of his GOP primary opponents went after him for serving on boards of companies that profited from stimulus funds and for outsourcing jobs. He weathered those attacks, and his campaign and allies argue that new comments are unlikely to move things any further towards Nunn.
"David has maintained a consistent lead in the polls despite an onslaught by liberal groups spending millions of dollars to help Michelle Nunn's campaign run false and misleading attacks against him on the airwaves,” said Perdue spokeswoman Megan Whittemore. “As the president admitted last week, this election is a referendum on his policies and Michelle Nunn would be nothing more than a rubberstamp for Obama and Reid's liberal agenda in Washington.”
Nunn repeatedly hit Perdue for the comments in a heated and raucous Tuesday night debate.
“He just yesterday said he was proud of a career in which he spent the majority of his time outsourcing jobs," Nunn said. "His pride cost a lot of people quite a bit of pain."
Perdue fired back, painting Nunn as a liberal lapdog for Washington Democrats.
"Her first vote would be for Harry ReidHarry ReidThe DC bubble is strangling the DNC Dems want Sessions to recuse himself from Trump-Russia probe Ryan says Trump, GOP 'in complete sync' on ObamaCare MORE as majority leader," he said. "You say you want to be a team leader, a conciliator, but you will not bite the hand that feeds you."
Nunn has run more ads than Perdue in recent weeks, driven by a fundraising advantage and a big stockpile of money she built up while Perdue spent his down in the GOP primary.
Outside groups haven’t been spending nearly as much in Georgia as in other states. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has run coordinated ads with Nunn, and EMILY’s List has been on the air backing her. The National Republican Senatorial Committee had ads up backing Perdue shortly after the primary ended, and the conservative outside group Ending Spending was also on the air in the late summer.
Both sides may be saving their resources for after November. Georgia is an expensive state to run ads in, and If Nunn and Perdue both fall short of 50 percent — a real possibility in a close race, with Libertarian Amanda Swafford polling in the low- to mid-single digits — the two will face off in a Jan. 6 runoff that could determine Senate control.
“What everyone's asking here is, can this race be won without a runoff? That's the million-dollar question, and it might actually be a $10 to $15 million question,” said GOP strategist Chip Lake.
It’s unclear whether either candidate will be able to win outright in November. But Democrats are excited about where things are heading.
“Her opponent is someone who has had his own way all his life and would take that attitude to D.C., fostering more of the same acrimony and gridlock,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Gordon Giffin, Nunn’s campaign chairman. “The more people see those distinctions the more they move to Michelle.”