Perdue Stands Firm With Trump In Battleground Georgia
James Arkin and Burgess Everett
Some Republicans facing tough 2020 elections are weighing a break with President Donald Trump on foreign policy or his border wall-driven national emergency declaration.
David Perdue is going the other way.
“Republicans have made a mistake in the past by running away from this president. I don’t see any need to do that,” Perdue, the first-term Georgia senator, said in an interview. “I support this agenda. I don’t support everything he says or how he says it, but this agenda is working.”
It’s a confident early stance from a Republican facing one of the toughest reelection races in the country next year — especially if he faces Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who lost the 2018 gubernatorial race by 1.4 percentage points. Democrats argue Georgia has shifted rapidly into battleground territory since Perdue romped to victory in 2014 over Michelle Nunn, the daughter of a legendary senator. And Perdue’s reelection is critical for Republicans to hold their Senate majority in 2020.
“It’s very competitive,” acknowledged Perdue’s Georgia colleague, GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson. “It’s going to be a horse race. You’re not going to be bored.”
Nevertheless, Perdue is pitching himself as the co-pilot of Trump’s first term. The CEO-turned-politician boasts about how his pull with the president has benefited Georgians on a variety of issues, including a disaster relief package currently working through Congress; the defeat of a border adjustment tax; and limits on potential additional tariffs. As one of the president’s top allies on Capitol Hill, Perdue rarely, if ever, seeks public separation from the commander in chief.
“I influence this president,” Perdue said.
Perdue doesn’t plan to run solely as a Trump ally, however, but to lean on his own record as a businessman still new to politics. He said he thinks he can maintain his status as an outsider even as an incumbent, running as someone “in the belly of the beast.”
Perdue pledges that if he wins his next term will be his last, but he’s running like his “hair’s on fire” as he prepares for the second campaign of his life. The Republican conceded he could lose, but believes his path to a second term is through framing his race as a debate between Trump’s policies in office and proposals from Democratic presidential aspirants, which the Republican senator boiled down to a “debate between free enterprise and socialism.”
“Nothing is for granted, nothing is guaranteed,” Perdue said. He added that when Georgia voters are “exposed to the facts about the ethos of what Democrats are perpetrating right now versus what is actually being proven to work, they’ll get past whatever I said or whatever Trump said or anything else, and they’ll do the right thing.”
Democrats eyeing Perdue’s seat aren’t so sure.
“Six years ago, I knew which base in Georgia is stronger — it wasn’t ours,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said of the effort to defeat Perdue. “We don’t know the answer to that question today.”
Perdue seems to understand that his state has morphed from fertile GOP terrain into a true battleground, as Democrats pursue a suburban strategy they believe will resonate in diverse Sunbelt states. But that doesn’t mean he will tack to the center politically: He’s essentially backing Trump’s agenda at every turn in the Senate and says if he disagrees with the president, he will do so in private.
Former Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) lost last year after initially equivocating over supporting Trump on Obamacare repeal, which Republicans say informs their future political plans. They say if senators are going to win red-leaning states, it’s going to be by riding with the president — and there’s no upside to breaking with him.
“Probably not in Georgia,” said GOP Sen. Richard Shelby of neighboring Alabama. “In California or Massachusetts, I’d think it would be a plus.”
Perdue fashions himself as a businessman, not a career politician, and has pushed internal proposals that have annoyed his more veteran colleagues. He’s led the charge to ax August recesses for the past two years, pushed major changes to government funding procedures and sought to change the GOP conference’s rules to more readily punish Republican chairmen that stray from the party line.
Last month, Perdue was overwhelmingly defeated on an internal vote that would have made it easier to strip GOP senators of committee chairmanships, a proposal he’s discussed in the past. GOP committee chairs Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona voted against Obamacare repeal in 2017, and last year Murkowski opposed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“We have to vote our conscience, and it was disappointing for him to think that a war hero like John McCain should be stripped of his chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee over a disagreement on policy,” said Collins.
Perdue said his proposal was about more accountability and not aimed at a particular person. But he acknowledged he’s rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way: “I don’t want this to sound arrogant, but I’ve got enough friends in Georgia.”
Back in Georgia, however, there are pockets that are increasingly difficult battlegrounds, said state Republican Party Chairman John Watson. Ground zero is the Atlanta suburbs, where Perdue won significant support in 2014 but voters moved away from the Republican Party in 2016 and last year.
Perdue said he thinks he’ll be able to win back some of those suburban voters. He argued that Trump hardly campaigned in Georgia during the presidential race, and Brian Kemp, the GOP governor, didn’t message to them, instead focusing on rural Republican turnout after emerging late from a primary runoff. Democrats flipped one suburban Atlanta House district and only narrowly lost in a second. But Perdue plans to target suburban voters rather than just ceding them to Democrats.
“They only heard one side of this argument in ’16, and they only heard one side of the argument in ’18,” Perdue said. “They’ll hear both sides of the argument in ’20.”
“He has worked the Atlanta suburbs over his tenure and continues to work them very hard,” said GOP Rep. Rob Woodall, who is retiring next year from his suburban Atlanta district after a surprisingly narrow victory in 2018. “While the governor’s race had a Republican rural strategy, David is working in every corner of the state to make sure he’s turning out the vote.”
“His values and achievements are ones that align very closely with Georgians,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young of Indiana. “He’ll end up winning.”
Democrats argue that Perdue’s embrace of Trump and the president’s position at the top of the ticket will continue the erosion of GOP support in those areas.
“In the suburbs, there’s a lot of potential for the Democratic vote,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, a top Democratic outside group.
Watson, the GOP chairman, said Perdue’s embrace of Trump is a positive in the red-leaning state in a presidential year. But he also has little choice.
“For the senator to walk away would be just like so many other politicians that people can’t stand,” Watson said. “He’s raised his hand for this president, this party and Georgia is very favorable to the president and to change paths now would be very insincere.”
Perdue’s path will get significantly more difficult if Abrams joins the race — she is considering a Senate or presidential campaign, or another run for governor in 2022, and will decide in the coming weeks. But Perdue dismissed Abrams as a “state personality” and a career politician, saying she’d “never had a real job that I can tell.”
“I don’t think it matters who the candidate is, the issues are going to be the same,” Perdue said.
In 2016, Perdue told Trump he would safely win Georgia and should focus his efforts in Midwestern states even as Democrats started to talk up the Peach State as a potential battleground. Trump won it by 5 points, down from Perdue’s 8-point victory. Last year, Kemp won by just 1.4 points. Perdue says the trend doesn’t concern him.
“The ethos in Georgia is still there that elected Donald Trump. Don’t let anybody kid you about that,” Perdue said.