David Perdue’s star on the rise, but so is critics’ scrutiny

The 66-year-old received rock star treatment at the Georgia Republican convention in Augusta on June 4, where he memorably popped on Donald Trump’s ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” hat during his keynote address.

Perdue then returned to Washington, where he helped map out Georgia’s latest effort to hold the line in its long-standing water wars with Alabama and Florida.

And then he became the butt of Democratic outrage when, at the end of the week, he made a poorly timed biblical joke that hinted at President Barack Obama’s demise.

Taken together, the events illustrate the political space Perdue is currently occupying after 18 months on Capitol Hill.

A representative of more than 10 million Georgians in Washington, a rising GOP star and a surrogate for a controversial presidential candidate, Perdue is more visible than ever before. He’ll be front-and-center at this month’s GOP convention in Cleveland as Georgia’s leading Trump supporter. Meanwhile, rumors that he’s positioning himself for higher office never cease.

But the increased attention has also meant more scrutiny — and criticism — of his actions and legislative record.

After a year-and-a-half in Washington’s most exclusive club, the U.S. Senate, Perdue continues to frame himself as an outsider who’s taking on the political establishment.

“I see this political bubble — all that’s real and I’m dealing with it every day,” Perdue recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I’ll tell you that’s why I think having somebody with experience outside of Washington is so crucial here to get different results.”

Washington work

On Capitol Hill, the former Fortune 500 CEO has carved a niche for himself at the wonky intersection of fiscal policy and national security.

But like many other crusaders before him, he hasn’t been able to win any real commitments for serious action on the main drivers of the debt. Washington gridlock has left in limbo his long-shot plans for term limits and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

“That is very frustrating,” Perdue said. “But also you could get frustrated and let that demotivate you or you could take that frustration and channel it into just a clear commitment that we’re not going to let this happen.”

In the meantime, he’s delved into a rewrite of the 1970s-era law that created the modern federal budget process, which Perdue says is the first meaningful step to addressing the national debt.

Perdue has seen more success moving narrower legislation in his role as a chairman of a Foreign Relations subcommittee. From that perch he’s been able to shepherd through a measure revamping operations at the State Department and another barring the Islamic State from selling stolen antiquities. He also worked behind the scenes to build support for a bill allowing Congress to review the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement.

But perhaps his biggest impact in the Senate has come from what he’s blocked.

Most notably, he helped stymie a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul effort he said could lead to the early release of violent criminals. Perdue also derailed the nomination of a Georgia judge to the federal bench over concerns about his membership in an advocacy group that has fought immigration restrictions.

It’s all part of what makes Perdue so hard to characterize in the Senate. He’s not a flame-throwing conservative, although he’s aligned himself with lawmakers such as Ted Cruz. He’s also not a consensus-driven moderate, though he’s talked about building bridges over nonpartisan issues.

That at times put him against Georgia’s senior senator, Republican Johnny Isakson. Most recently, the pair split on a bill offering Puerto Rico a financial lifeline. Perdue said the measure, which created a board to oversee the territory’s finances and debt restructuring, was a “Band-Aid for a long-term fiscal illness.”

“It appears to me that he’s walking a very fine line effectively over maintaining, gaining and earning the respect of his colleagues while really calling out the system and sometimes calling them out for things he (thinks are not going in the) right direction for our country,” said former Gov. Sonny Perdue, the senator’s cousin.

Some Georgia Republicans, however, say the senator can’t walk that line forever.

Charlie Harper, a GOP consultant and publisher of the blog GeorgiaPol, said Perdue’s campaign promise to try to reform Washington to have it operate more like a business “is going to run head-on into being ‘the outsider.’”

“A lot like Senator Ted Cruz, he’s proven he can give a good speech to tell people what they want to hear,” Harper said. “Eventually, he’s going to have to get his hands dirty and work like an insider to accomplish any of his big-ticket goals.”

Overall, Perdue’s reception among the Georgia GOP has remained positive, and his status has particularly risen among party activists who have embraced his commitment to term limits.

“Georgians don’t care whether somebody’s socks match his shirts or his pants or whether he is a (good) speaker. They just want to know and count on that man or woman all the time,” said Tom Perdue, a Georgia GOP strategist of no relation to the senator. “David does that. He’s doing that, he’s earning respect.”

Higher politics

Perdue’s continued popularity has fueled nonstop rumors about his political ambition, in particular that he’s eyeing the Governor’s Mansion in 2018 or even the White House.

Perdue is demure when asked about his future, but his political allies say his business experience and willingness to buck the status quo would make him a solid choice.

“People are really starting to consider him one of the more senior statesmen because we are going to be having somewhat of a void of leadership” in Georgia, said Evan Karanovich, a political operative and former Perdue staffer. “Somebody like David Perdue really could be quite consistent in what he can offer long term.”

Sonny Perdue would not disclose whether he’s spoken with his cousin about running for higher office, but he said “David’s temperament, his personality, his abilities would serve him very, very well in an executive position.”

David Perdue, meanwhile, has built more buzz with his vocal embrace of Trump at a time when many Georgia Republicans have only tepidly accepted the presumptive nominee.

The parallels between Perdue and Trump are hard to ignore — a fact that the senator himself has repeatedly emphasized. Both are wealthy businessmen who ran for office without any political experience, riding the tide of voter dissatisfaction to the front of the polls.

Perdue continues to dodge long-shot talk that he could be Trump’s potential running mate and says that he’s instead focused on getting the billionaire elected. He’ll lead Georgia’s delegation at the Republican National Convention this month, where Trump will officially be anointed the party’s nominee. He also co-hosted a fundraiser for Trump in Atlanta last month, an event Perdue ultimately had to miss because of Senate business.

What’s not clear is whether Perdue’s full-fledged embrace of such a contentious candidate could potentially harm him in the future. He does not face voters again until 2020.

“There’s certainly some risk with Trump. But without risk there’s not likely to be great reward either,” said John Watson, who worked on David Perdue’s campaign and served as chief of staff to the senator’s cousin.

Perdue’s rising profile in both Georgia and Washington has led to more speaking gigs and publicity. But as Perdue has found out, that’s meant his actions have also been put more under the microscope.

He was put through the wringer most recently last month, when a speech to evangelical political activists instantly became overshadowed by a biblical quip he made about Obama’s days being few. The criticism on social media and from Democrats, including the White House and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was swift and relentless.

“Now, we’re getting a clearer picture of the kind of petty, vile politician he really his,” said Michael Smith, a spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party.

Perdue has brushed off the criticism.

“My role is not to worry about what people say about what I’m doing or saying,” Perdue said when asked about the Obama quip. “What I’m trying to make sure is that people back home know that my alignment is with them relative to the priorities that I’m fighting for. I didn’t go to Washington to be considered a person that will go along to get along.”

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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