Anti-Semitism charges roil David Perdue's reelection bid as polls tighten

Sen. David Perdue’s (R-Ga.) campaign is under fire after it pulled an advertisement on Facebook that included a photo of his opponent, Democrat Jon Ossoff, with an enlarged nose — an apparent alteration seen as an anti-Semitic trope. 

The Republican senator’s campaign has blamed the ad on an outside vendor and noted the candidate’s past stands against all forms of hate, but it comes at a perilous time. The Cook Political Report last week shifted the race to "toss-up" as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Biden campaign sells 'I paid more income taxes than Trump' stickers Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose MORE ramps up his campaign in the state against President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE

Ossoff, who is Jewish, went on the attack over the ad, calling it “one of the most classic anti-Semitic tropes in history.” Speaking to reporters in a virtual news conference on Tuesday, Ossoff called on Perdue to donate the money raised through the ad to organizations that “promote community healing and community unity."

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“At a moment like this when we need healing, when we need unity, for my opponent to stoop to this kind of incredibly divisive, inappropriate, offensive tactic is really disturbing and it’s unbecoming of a sitting U.S. senator,” Ossoff said, calling the ad “deeply regrettable and inappropriate and hurtful.”

John Burke, a Perdue campaign spokesperson, said that the senator had not seen the ad before it was released and that the alteration was “accidental” — an “unintentional error” in the graphic design process. He noted that it had been deleted from Facebook after the news outlet The Forward published an article about the digital ad.

The Forward cites “three graphic design experts” who said that Ossoff’s nose had been “lengthened and widened” in the photo used in the ad. 

Ben Fry, Perdue’s campaign manager, announced on Tuesday that the campaign will change digital fundraising companies in light of the Facebook ad.

“In light of an unfortunate and inadvertent error involving one of our Facebook advertisements produced and placed by an outside vendor, our campaign will be making a change to a new digital fundraising company,” Fry said in a statement. “Senator Perdue did not know about nor see the ad before it ran, and he is committed to ensuring future mistakes of this kind do not occur.”

Burke pointed to the senator’s record of opposing and combating religious discrimination and anti-Semitism and said that any effort to use the digital ad to claim otherwise is disingenuous.

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Perdue co-sponsored a Senate resolution last year condemning anti-Semitism, as well as the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2019, which defined lynching as bodily injury on the basis of perceived race, color, religion or nationality.

“Anybody who implies that this was anything other than an inadvertent error is intentionally misrepresenting Senator Perdue’s strong and consistent record of standing firmly against anti-Semitism and all forms of hate,” Burke said.

The ad controversy and allegations of anti-Semitism come amid a particularly trying reelection campaign for Perdue.

Georgia has been a relative safe haven for Republicans for decades. Voters in the state haven’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years, and Trump won the state handily in 2016. But rapidly changing demographics and a recent trend away from the GOP among suburban voters have put Georgia well within Democrats’ reach.

The party needs to pick up three or four Senate seats this year, depending on who wins control of the White House, to capture a majority in the chamber, and the Peach State is now seen as a critical part of their path to unified Democratic control in Washington.

Several recent polls from of the state show Biden narrowly leading Trump, while Ossoff has begun closing his polling deficit against Perdue since winning the Democratic Senate nomination outright in a crowded primary field last month.

Perdue’s allies say they always expected a tight race this year, noting that even in 2014, when he won his first term, polls showed a close fight to the finish against his Democratic opponent at the time, Michelle Nunn. He eventually won that race by 8 points.

Still, 2020 may prove a more difficult year for Republicans than 2014, when a Democrat was still in the White House and the GOP gained nine Senate seats to ultimately recapture a majority in the chamber.

With less than 100 days to go until Election Day, Trump’s sagging poll numbers have some Republicans worried that he could drag GOP Senate candidates down with him.

Democrats went on the attack after the revelation of the Facebook ad, rejecting the Perdue campaign’s explanation and accusing him of refusing to take responsibility for leaning on what they said was a clear anti-Semitic trope.

“Senator Perdue’s first offense was running this disgusting ad, and his second was refusing to take any responsibility for it and letting others shoulder the blame for his campaign,” said Helen Kalla, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, demanded that Perdue apologize to Ossoff and fire the campaign vendor behind the ad.

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“This anti-Semitic attack against Jon Ossoff from Senator Perdue’s flailing campaign has no place in our politics,” Williams said. “Now more than ever, we have to combat the ugly hatred we’ve seen continue to rear its head in this country.”

“Senator Perdue must immediately fire the campaign vendor who made this ad, apologize to Jon Ossoff, and take responsibility for injecting these kinds of hurtful stereotypes into this election.”

The advertisement also drew criticism from Jewish organizations, who said the ad calls to mind nefarious and hurtful tropes and stereotypes at a time when hate crimes against Jewish people are on the rise.

Dov Wilker, the regional director for the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta, said his organization was “shocked” by the ad, noting that the altered photo and accompanying text that claimed that “Democrats are trying to buy Georgia” played into “antisemitic imagery.”

“We call upon the Senator to apologize and would be happy to meet with him and his staff to discuss antisemitism as it continues its steady rise at home and abroad,” Wilker said in an email.

Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization, tweeted that Perdue’s ad amounted to “blatant antisemitism.”

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“It’s not an accident,” the group wrote. “It’s their platform.”

Some Republicans raced to Perdue’s defense on Tuesday, arguing that he has been a consistent ally of the Jewish community and has repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism.

“Time and again, Senator David Perdue has proven himself to be a true friend to the Jewish community and has stood firmly against anti-Semitic bigotry,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), the chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Since coming to the Senate, he has consistently condemned hatred.”