Kingston comes out swinging in GOP U.S. Senate debate

Prowling his home turf, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston came out swinging Saturday night against his Republican primary foes for Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat.

It often amounted to a defense of Kingston’s two-decade record in Congress, which has provided plenty of fodder for his foes. But it started with a subtle dig at the newly crowned front-runner in the race, businessman David Perdue.

The seven GOP candidates met at the Savannah Arts Academy after a trio of polls showed Perdue, the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, leading the field.

David Perdue has been blanketing the Atlanta area with television advertisements paid for in part by his personal wealth, depicting his foes as crying babies. Kingston also has been airing biographical ads in Atlanta, and has been coming in second in recent polls.

Kingston, of Savannah, opened by reminding his constituents of his career and added “no gate separates your house from my house.” Perdue lives in a gated community on Sea Island.

The questions mostly addressed concerns for coastal Georgia, including pending military cuts, flood insurance reform and the deepening of the Savannah harbor.

The candidates almost unanimously rejected proposed Pentagon budget cuts.

“We have got to stay strong militarily,” said U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta. “It is time to speak softly but carry a big stick.”

But Derrick Grayson, a MARTA engineer and minister from DeKalb County, had a differing view.

“We love to interfere in other people’s business,” Grayson said. “That’s the ugly truth that many people don’t want to acknowledge.”

On tax policy, the candidates nearly all agreed that they would like to scrap the income tax in favor of a national sales tax. But Art Gardner, an Atlanta attorney who has based his run on avoiding hard-line stances, said scrapping the Internal Revenue Service “is not gonna happen.”

Congress recently passed a bill to cap federal flood insurance premium increases, partially reversing a 2012 reform bill that led to a big strain on some homeowners.

Kingston voted for the bill. Gingrey and U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, an Athens Republican, voted against it. Perdue and former Secretary of State Karen Handel criticized the program without saying which way they would have voted on the House bill.

Broun was the most forceful.

“The problem with flood insurance is the same problem with health insurance, agricultural crop insurance, student loans and everything else,” he said. “It’s the federal government getting involved in things it shouldn’t.”

Kingston counterpunched.

“To my friends who say the federal government should be out of it,” he said, “they’re in it because the private sector won’t handle coastal property. And if you pull the federal government out of there, do you think there’s going to be any development in coastal Georgia? Absolutely not. We would be in economic turmoil.”

On funding for the Port of Savannah, another local priority that has statewide attention, the candidates all excoriated the Obama administration for holding up the start of the project and not delivering the funding. Handel laid some of the blame on the congressmen for a “lack of urgency.”

“We have been trying to expand the port for 17 years,” Handel said. “No one gets 17 years to deliver a project to their boss in the private sector.”

Kingston again fired back, saying his fellow congressmen had been champions for the project, but the other candidates had not lifted a finger.

“Can they even name the four federal agencies that had to sign off on the project?” Kingston asked.

The top two Republicans in the May primary — assuming no one tops 50 percent of the vote — will go on to a July 22 runoff. The winner likely will face Democrat Michelle Nunn in November, in a nationally watched race.