Perdue’s embrace of Trump boosts, complicates reelection bid

Editor’s note: This profile of incumbent Republican David Perdue is first in a series of stories about major candidates running in November’s election U.S. Senate election. Another story in the series will focus on Democrat Jon Ossoff.

President Donald Trump was beginning to hit his tempo during a recent Cobb County rally when he singled out a supporter donning an American flag neck gaiter a few rows away.

It was U.S. Sen. David Perdue, the president recounted, who in 2018 urged him to endorse then-gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp. Trump obliged, a move that prompted Kemp’s landslide win in that year’s GOP runoff and further cemented Perdue’s position as a Republican power broker in Georgia.

“You made that call,” the president told Perdue, who was seated by the governor. “That was a good call because your governor’s doing a great job. David’s doing a great job.”

Six years after his runaway victory over Democrat Michelle Nunn and a crowded Republican primary field, Perdue has forged a path as one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill.

ExploreU.S. Senate Perdue seat candidate profiles

He counsels the president on issues such as immigration and trade, fielding Trump’s early-morning and late-night phone calls and often joining him on the golf course, and he’s viewed as something of a Trump surrogate on the Senate floor and in cable news appearances.

Perdue’s sprawling political network is now intermingled with Trump’s, with several of his former aides holding senior positions in the administration. That network includes a first cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who’s rounding out his fourth year as secretary of agriculture, and the governor, whom Trump confirmed benefited from Perdue’s influence.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, persuaded President Donald Trump, right, to endorse Brian Kemp in the 2018 GOP runoff for governor. The president's support helped Kemp win big in the runoff and then go on to victory in the general election. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Perdue has stood by Trump even in moments when fellow Republicans have reprimanded him, such as when the president refused to denounce white supremacists who demonstrated in Virginia.

It’s that coziness with the country’s unconventional commander-in-chief that Perdue’s Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff has seized upon. He frames Perdue as a Trump lackey, someone who refuses to denounce the president’s most dangerous positions, including downplaying the severity of the coronavirus.

Perdue vehemently disagrees. That close relationship with the president has helped secure millions of dollars for the state’s top economic development project at the Port of Savannah port and magnitudes more in COVID-19 relief money, he says. It’s allowed him to shape tax and economic policy from the inside and advocate for historically black colleges and universities, 10 of which call Georgia home, he added.

“I care about one thing and one thing only, and that’s getting results for the people of Georgia,” Perdue, who has long been rumored to be eyeing higher office himself, said during a recent interview. “And (Trump) would say the same thing.”

ExploreElection 2020: Georgia voter guide

Business roots

Perdue’s political trajectory in many ways foreshadowed Trump’s.

The Houston County native, 70, spent decades in business before positioning himself as a deep-pocketed, say-it-like-it-is political outsider when he joined the sprawling field to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss in 2013.

After beginning his career as a management consultant, the Georgia Tech graduate transitioned into the corporate world. He worked in Southeast Asia and eventually moved into executive-level positions for companies such as Haggar Clothing Co., Reebok and Dollar General.

Perdue’s experience as a Fortune 500 CEO was front and center during his inaugural campaign. Among his priorities were reining in the national debt and overhauling the tax code.

Perdue won attention for provocative advertisements that capitalized on voter dissatisfaction with the political establishment and portrayed him as the adult among tantrum-throwing career politicians. But his reputation as a corporate turnaround specialist also invited scrutiny from his opponents, who seized on his 2005 comment that he had “spent most of my career” outsourcing jobs. Positions Perdue held later in his career, including an appointment to the powerful Georgia Ports Authority by his cousin, also raised eyebrows.

Perdue arrived in the Senate in 2015 as somewhat of an agitator, pushing for term limits, reshuffling committee power and canceling Capitol Hill’s beloved August recess — positions that didn’t exactly ingratiate him to his long-tenured colleagues.

But it was his relationship with Trump, whom he first met in 2014, that made many in Washington take notice.

When the president huddled with senior GOP congressional leaders shortly after his inauguration to hash out his first-year agenda, he invited Perdue to sit in. A few months later, Trump gave a little-noticed legal immigration bill co-authored by Perdue a presidential boost when he hosted a news conference touting it in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

President Donald Trump, right, used a White House event to help boost the prospects for a bill on legal immigration that U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue had sponsored. (Zach Gibson/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)

The friendship has helped Perdue’s popularity soar among the state’s Republican base voters, with whom he holds rock-star status. But it could also be a liability among independents and suburban women who deeply dislike Trump, especially as polls show the presidential and Senate races deadlocked in Georgia.

Perdue’s recent television ads have made no mention of the president, even though Trump has been featured in some digital and mailed ads to solid Republican voters. The spots have instead promoted the senior senator’s corporate experience and votes in favor of a military pay raise and the popular Paycheck Protection Program.

With Libertarian Shane Hazel also in the race, it’s possible the contest moves to a January runoff, an outcome groups allied with both Perdue and Ossoff are trying desperately to avoid. They’ve pumped tens of millions of dollars into the race.

Some of Ossoff’s ads have pressured Perdue, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, to answer for scores of stock transactions made on his behalf not long after a senators-only briefing on the pandemic.

The Sea Island resident has denied wrongdoing and cut an ad accusing Ossoff of lying about his stock trades, in which he also said his transactions had been reviewed — and cleared — by federal investigators. Perdue later announced his financial advisers would no longer trade stocks in individual companies on his behalf.

Surviving Capitol Hill

If elected to a second term, which he promises will be his last, Perdue lists rebuilding the economy and passing policing legislation as top priorities.

The latter is an issue that Perdue says “feels personal to him,” having grown up in Middle Georgia in the 1960s and watched his father integrate Houston County schools as the local superintendent.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue says that if he wins a second term, his top priorities will be rebuilding the economy and passing police legislation. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

Following George Floyd’s death this summer, Perdue backed a Senate GOP bill that would have discouraged the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, promoted the deployment of body cameras and required police departments to track officer misconduct.

Over the past several years, Perdue has taken on growing responsibility on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, where he leads a subcommittee overseeing the Navy, Marine Corps and shipbuilding. He promises to use the perch to look out for the state’s military bases.

He also plans to revisit on an old goal. Overhauling the federal budget process, he believes, is the first step toward tackling the country’s spiraling debt and fast-depleting Medicare and Social Security trust funds, which he views as major threats. In recent years, Perdue signed off on several multitrillion-dollar bills that added to the country’s debt, including the 2017 GOP tax overhaul and this spring’s coronavirus relief package. He said both were necessary to grow the economy.

Six years after moving to Washington, there are still many things about Capitol Hill that make Perdue fume.

Colleagues use procedural tools to slow down confirmation votes. Major legislation can be stalled indefinitely by a minority of senators. And don’t get him started on the chamber’s Obamacare repeal vote or the bipartisan task force on the budget process, which fell apart in 2018 due to partisan distrust.

Perdue insists he won’t let those setbacks get in the way.

“I’m still the outsider,” he said. “I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

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