A feisty debate in a heated GOP Senate runoff

The political slugfest between Republicans Jack Kingston and David Perdue took a bruising turn Sunday as both U.S. Senate candidates leveled increasingly personal attacks in the sole televised debate for one of the nation’s mostly closely watched GOP runoffs.

Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive, depicted Kingston, a 22-year veteran of congress, as an “out of touch” Washington insider who knowingly took potentially illegal contributions. The Savannah congressman painted Perdue as a gilded executive and an outsider so extreme he’s a renegade.

The debate lasted just 30 minutes, but was the most brutal back-and-forth yet in a bitter nine-week runoff for the right to face Democrat Michelle Nunn in November.

Perdue and Kingston differ more in tone and experience than policy. The outcome of their showdown could help determine control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans need to flip six Democratic seats, and they must hold on to this one, which is being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Moultrie. A loss in Georgia would be devastating for the party.

Democrats, meanwhile, are counting on the two Republicans battering each other before the bloodied winner takes on Nunn.

The unprecedented length of the runup to the July 22 runoff has also introduced new challenges for both men, namely two Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that raise questions about both campaigns. Both figured prominently in the debate, hosted by the Atlanta Press Club and televised on Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Attack and volley

Perdue launched the first attack, questioning Kingston on a report that found the Savannah Republican took potentially illegal contributions funneled through a convicted felon, and that he ignored warnings from a GOP attorney to return the money.

“You need to come clean about this finally. It’s pretty obvious. If you have money and you want to buy a favor or influence, Jack Kingston is open for business,” said Perdue, who suggested the donor, Khalid Satary, sought out Kingston for a reason.

Kingston said an ongoing federal investigation into the donations is “about him (Satary) and not about us” and that his campaign gave back the money voluntarily. After the debate, he said Perdue’s attacks were a measure of his “desperation” and questioned the financiers of his opponent’s super PACs.

The Savannah Republican rebutted by summoning up another AJC report that found that a trucking company Perdue co-owned hauled cargo while the candidate was on the Georgia Ports Authority board making key decisions on the port's operations.

Kingston called it a “sweetheart, insider appointment” by Perdue’s cousin, the former Gov. Sonny Perdue, and intoned that his opponent was trying to bolster his own bottom line.

“Are we to believe you did that, and your trucking company did not benefit from that select position?” prodded Kingston, who later read a conflict-of-interest disclosure that Perdue did not initially sign until queries about the issue.

Perdue said “there’s absolutely nothing” to the complaint. He said it’s part of a wider campaign by Kingston and his most prominent supporters, many of whom are elected GOP officials, to discredit him.

One of the testier moments came minutes later when Kingston talked of spending most of his adult life pushing conservative causes. What, then, was Perdue doing?

“I was creating thousands of jobs in the real world,” came his quick reply.

Dredging up a port fight

The Kingston-Perdue battle had mostly played out in the airwaves until recent weeks, but both men have stepped up their in-person campaigning - and attacks - in the closing days of the race.

Perdue was the top vote-getter among seven Republican candidates in the May 20 primary, but Kingston has since sought to knit together a coalition of rank-and-file Republican leaders and tea party types. Polls showed Kingston with an early lead, although some have Perdue closing in.

The two squabbled over fresh ground on Sunday, slamming each other for delays in Georgia’s decades-long effort to deepen Savannah’s port. The push to deepen the port has long been Kingston’s top legislative priority. State officials are confident the dredging can begin this year.

“You’ve been trying 17 years to deepen this port five feet,” said Perdue, adding: “This is an economic engine down there. In the real world, you would have been fired for that kind of performance. And now here you are wanting a promotion. Folks, that’s what’s wrong with career politicians.”

Kingston hit back, saying that Perdue failed to lobby in Washington for the deepening while on the ports board. The reason, he said, is “you were making money off your appointment rather than trying to help us get this port deepened.”

An eye on November

Both candidates signaled they had an eye on a November matchup against Nunn, whose well-financed campaign is also expected to have a tide of outside money at its back.

Kingston said Perdue, who was little-known in GOP circles before he announced his candidacy last year, could betray voters once in Washington.

“President Obama ran as an outsider,” he said. “Do you really know what you’re getting with David Perdue?”

Perdue said after the debate that his opponent’s questionable donations could hurt the GOP’s chances of beating Nunn.

“This scandal is going to come out in the general election,” he said. “Trust me.”