ATLANTA — Former Dollar General CEO David PerdueDavid PerdueKemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll Perdue tests positive for COVID-19, campaign says Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia MORE’s business record was supposed to be his ticket to the Senate. Now it’s becoming the Republican’s undoing.
His outsourcing past has special resonance in Georgia, the state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate. Now, the race has created a major headache for national Republicans with less than a week to Election Day.
Former charity executive Michelle Nunn (D) and her allies have been hammering Perdue on his business record, highlighting comments he made in a 2005 deposition that he spent “most of my career” focused on outsourcing and running hard-hitting ads on his time as a businessman. Polls show the two in a dead heat, giving Democrats their best pickup opportunity and an opening to hold on to Senate control.
Perdue won a hard-fought, crowded primary last summer by framing himself as a political outsider and job creator. Even his allies admit the Democratic attacks have undercut one of his campaign’s main arguments: that he knows how to help grow the economy.
“He was a great businessman, and some things sometimes that businesspeople are involved in are not necessarily the most popular things with the citizens in this country,” Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Padgett told The Hill following a GOP unity rally in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta on Friday evening. “That doesn’t mean that they’re not good candidates, but they have a job to do, and their job is to make sure the company they represent makes money.”
Privately, many Republicans are frustrated with Perdue’s campaign, worried he could cost them the seat.
One high-ranking Georgia Republican said that at a recent golf charity event, many in the party were complaining about having to support Perdue.
“I have never heard people say the following, and these are Republicans: ‘I have never felt more disgusted about who to vote for than this year,’ ” the GOP official said.
The outsourcing attacks are especially potent in Georgia, where the unemployment rate is at 7.9 percent, 2 points higher than the national average.
“I’m concerned with the ads that are out there right now,” Vicki Temple, Perdue’s Henry County co-chairwoman, admitted to The Hill at an event featuring Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in McDonough’s town square on Friday. “They are working — I do think they’re working — and we have to respond and we have to respond with truth and defend ourselves, and that’s hard to do.”
Perdue has been on the defensive, forced to explain his role at companies like Pillowtex, a North Carolina textile company that closed and eliminated more than 7,000 jobs, and Haggar Clothing, where jobs were moved overseas. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List both released ads Tuesday that criticized him for his time at Sara Lee, where his job was to expand Asian operations while the company closed down Georgia factories. Both ads feature Perdue’s recent comments that he was “proud” of the work he’d done.
“If you look at Pillowtex, David Perdue was there for seven months, he made $1.7 million, much of the deposition is about his concern with not getting enough severance, and 7,600 people lost their jobs and their livelihoods,” Nunn told The Hill Thursday while driving from a campaign stop in North Georgia, holding the company up as an example of where Perdue’s priorities lie.
Perdue has fired back by blaming President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats for creating an economy where companies struggled. And he ties them to Nunn at every chance he gets.
“I’m going up there to fight for you to bring jobs back to Georgia. I want to fight for you, I do not want to be Barack Obama’s senator like Michelle Nunn,” Perdue said. He then jumped on comments Obama made last week aimed at rallying black voters to turn out for Nunn.
“This president has said that his policies are on the ballot. He even said this week that he needs Michelle Nunn elected so he can continue these policies that represent his failed agenda,” he said. “With your help, we will not let Harry Reid have one more vote in the United States Senate.”
Perdue has sought to pivot the focus back to Nunn and tie her to Obama, but she’s managed so far to mostly keep the election framed as a referendum on his career, touting her work heading former President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light charity to prove she can work across the aisle.
While the Democrat’s dodges on whether she’ll support Reid as majority leader drew some attention during Sunday night’s debate, much of the allotted time was focused on Perdue’s private sector experience.
The businessman told The Hill that he was frustrated with how his career has been portrayed on TV and in the media.
“My career has really been based on creating and saving thousands of jobs. And frankly, somehow in my career I got pulled into messy situations that needed turnarounds, at Reebok, at Sara Lee in Asia, even at Dollar General, and I’m proud of my career. And that’s what I was trying to say,” Perdue told The Hill in Marietta. “The real issue here is the loss of jobs over the last few decades. Entire industries have been decimated — textile, apparel, footwear, electronics, even furniture — many of them right here in Georgia. That didn’t happen because of bad management, and it certainly wasn’t because companies outsourced jobs, it was because of bad government policies.”
Polls show a very close race. Nunn has led in five of the last 10, Perdue has led in the three more recent, and two have shown a deadlocked contest, with Libertarian Amanda Swafford pulling 3 to 5 percent support. If no candidate reaches 50 percent, the top two vote-getters will face off in a Jan. 6 runoff, a scenario Democrats are more nervous about because of difficulty turning out their heavily black base in the state.
“It was difficult to win a runoff in Georgia for a Democrat. It’s even worse now because the runoff period has become so extended,” former Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox (D) told The Hill, saying there was “no question” that Nunn has a better shot winning on Nov. 4 than she would on Jan. 6.
Both parties expect a photo finish next week.
“It’s a close race,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told The Hill in McDonough. “It’s anybody’s ballgame.”