GOP Senate candidates sharpen elbows over Savannah port snub

Macon - The finger-pointing over the White House’s port of Savannah snub morphed to saber-rattling earlier this week. At Saturday night’s GOP Senate debate, the rhetoric verged on open warfare.

Several candidates mused that the Obama administration’s decision to block the dredging of Savannah’s port – the state’s top economic development priority – was a politically motivated ruse aimed at hurting the GOP field.

The premise is tough – the fact that Vice President Joe Biden was with Democratic front-runner Michelle Nunn that day put her in a bind – but the candidates seized on the Veep’s “come hell or high water” promise from last year.

“If you want to know the difference between Democrats and Republicans and you want a reason to vote Republican, Vice President Joe Biden gave it to us,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican who has been working on the project for more than a decade.

Quipped Rep. Phil Gingrey: “I guess hell and high water both came.”

But the lengthy push to deepen the port by five feet also opened a rift among the candidates casting themselves as outsiders. Karen Handel, the former Georgia Secretary of State, called it an “unconscionable” move that also underscored the ineffectiveness of the three sitting congressmen in the running.

Businessman David Perdue struck a similar note in a line of attack. Said Perdue:

“If it took me 17 years to do something in business I’m afraid I wouldn’t have a very good career. That’s an indication of so many things. A government out of control is one … But where were our elected officials in Congress? … It’s unconscionable it’s taken us this long.”

His first-cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, was also a politician who made the deepening of the port a priority. David Perdue said after the debate the remarks weren’t intended to ding the ex-gov or the current one, that instead he was frustrated with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators that have held the project up.


The same demographic changes that have Georgia Democrats giddy have unnerved Republicans. At Saturday’s GOP Senate debate, the question about how to appeal to minorities was in the spotlight.

The five best-known Republicans leaned on familiar tropes. David Perdue argued that reclaiming the “high ground when it comes to economic opportunity” will draw more newcomers to the fold, while Karen Handel promised to go where the community is – regardless of political affiliation.

Rep. Paul Broun pointed to the diverse staff he’s hired. Rep. Phil Gingrey cited the work he does each month at a charity clinic that serves mostly Hispanics. And Rep. Jack Kingston pointed to stats that showed roughly one-third of his district is black. Said Kingston:

“We Republicans stumble all over this question. Minorities just like the rest of us want jobs. If we’re going to turn around the economy, we need to push back against regulations that kill jobs … That would serve every person in here, regardless of their race.”

None, though, could trump the response from Derrick Grayson, a minister who is the only black Republican running for the open seat.

“I’m already in the black community – that’s where I live,” he said with a smile. “I’m meeting them where they are.”


Not surprisingly, none of the GOP candidates were big fans of the proposal for stiff Pentagon cuts under consideration in Washington. That’s a crowd pleaser in Macon, where politicians are regularly nervous about the fate of the Robins Air Force Base in nearby Warner Robins.

But the most vociferous answer came from Kingston, who has made his chops on military. Said Kingston:

“I have a consistent record making sure our soldiers, sailors and airmen never have to fight a fair fight … I don’t want to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. I want to kill a fly with five sledgehammers.”


Phil Gingrey: Not a fan of rap music. The Marietta Republican went down a bit of a rabbit hole when asked what he would do to stop youth violence. It started with comments that the White House should better support community-based groups, such as the Boys and Girls Club. It ended with this:

“This Hollywood crowd continues to put out the trashiest videos, movies, rap music. What does the federal government do about it? Nothing. I’m sick of it. And I know you’re sick of it too. It’s got to stop.”

(His campaign, by the way, noted afterward that he doesn’t want feds to infringe on free speech rights that, yes, include rap music.)

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.