Trump administration could mean greater clout for Perdue circle

Donald Trump’s election victory has propelled the powerful Perdue family to another orbit in the political universe. And that could have vast implications for Georgia.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue expects to have increased clout in the U.S. Senate after hitching his political future to Trump’s rocket. His first cousin former Gov. Sonny Perdue auditioned last week with Trump for agriculture secretary. Perdue aide Nick Ayers is said to be a finalist to lead the Republican National Committee. And a constellation of other Perdue loyalists are in increasingly influential spots.

Certainly, the Perdues aren't the only Georgians to benefit from Trump's election. U.S. Rep. Tom Price will be responsible for the unraveling of the Affordable Care Act if he's confirmed as Trump's health secretary. Early Trump supporters in Georgia, including state Sens. Burt Jones and Michael Williams, could leverage their allegiance in 2018 if they run for higher office.

But none have the sprawling imprint in Washington and Georgia to match the growing clout of the Perdue family’s network. The group also includes Paul Bennecke, who heads the Republican Governors Association, and John Watson, who is likely to compete next year to lead the Georgia GOP.

A trio of Perdue veterans — Dan McLagan, Scott Rials and Jay Walker — have run the campaigns of almost every newly elected U.S. House member in Georgia the past four years. Another Perdue stalwart, Derrick Dickey, helped mastermind David Perdue’s election and now serves as his chief of staff and political guru.

There’s Billy Kirkland, another Perdue deputy who oversaw Trump’s Georgia operation in the final stretch of the campaign. And Alec Poitevint, a wealthy Bainbridge businessman and longtime confidant of both Perdues, who also has cloes ties to Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus.

“Another orbit is right,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist. “The Perdue circle is a force whose profile and influence is growing.”

The family’s rise could mean an easier path for David Perdue’s legislation and more funding for his favored projects, such as the deepening of the Port of Savannah and other infrastructure work. It also means Perdue-backed candidates might have an advantage squeezing out rivals — and Georgia Republicans could have an easier time securing funding in the next vote.

“Politics is about relationships, and we believe that Georgia is going to get a pretty good look when national resources are distributed to make sure that Republican dominance in Georgia continues,” said Watson, who was Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff and is an adviser to his cousin. “There’s no guarantees, though. Georgia has to do a good job with its candidates.”

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, agreed that while it’s beneficial to have well-placed friends in Washington, that does not guarantee concrete results for Georgia.

“What it does mean is that things that are important to the state get a hearing. There’s somebody in the room for whom Georgia is a priority,” Duffy said. “Now, does that result in anything tangible that you can point to? That’s a hard thing to prove.”

‘Happy to serve’

David Perdue and others in his family network are sanguine about the future.

Squashing any inkling that he would join Trump’s Cabinet, the senator vowed to “fully support getting this 100-day plan executed” after meeting with the president-elect for nearly two hours on Friday at Trump Tower. His supporters say he could be the U.S. senator with the closest ties to Trump now that Jeff Sessions is set to lead the Justice Department.

“This whole tax package that they’re looking at right now is geared up to get people back to work,” the first-term Republican said. “So I’m very energized and excited about that opportunity.”

He was the second Perdue in a week to huddle with Trump. Sonny Perdue ventured to the president-elect’s headquarters two days earlier to discuss the possibility of becoming the agriculture secretary, and Perdue World’s lobbying for the role has ratcheted up.

“I’m interested in helping the country,” said the ex-governor, who served from 2003 to 2011. “I told President-elect Trump that I would be happy to serve from Georgia, where I am very happily living with my wife and 14 grandchildren, or I’d be happy to serve him if he thought I could be helpful to him here in D.C.”

Both their causes could be helped by Ayers, a 34-year-old Cobb County native who managed Sonny Perdue’s 2006 re-election campaign and advised a PAC that boosted David Perdue’s 2014 victory. Several media outlets report that Ayers, now a deputy to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, is a finalist to lead the powerful Republican National Committee.

The Perdue operation’s rising stock comes with risk. For one, the support for Trump could backfire should his presidency falter. And operatives and candidates who aren’t in the family’s sphere of influence could paint the clan as too power hungry or pervasive.

“Perhaps. But I would chalk it up to people who are jealous of the Perdue record of winning,” said Seth Weathers, a Georgia campaign strategist not in the Perdue network. “I think the GOP would be smart to make them a big part of the new administration.”