Five years ago this month, when he was best known as a real estate mogul-turned-reality star who raised questions about President Barack Obama’s citizenship, Donald Trump telegraphed his admiration for David Perdue, the political newcomer who’d unexpectedly secured the GOP nomination for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat.
“He’s a fantastic guy who will fight hard against ObamaCare,” Trump tweeted.
The tweet came after the duo’s initial Trump Tower meeting in September 2014, where they laid the groundwork for a political alliance that would help shape Trump’s anti-establishment presidential run and facilitate Perdue’s rise as one of Capitol Hill’s foremost “Trumpsplainers.”
What’s become crystal clear as Perdue has ramped up his 2020 campaign is just how much his re-election bid will be defined by the contest at the top of the ticket.
Perdue has proudly wrapped himself in Trump’s top accomplishments and touted his close ties to the White House while echoing the anti-socialism messaging that’s emanated from the president and the Republican National Committee.
Meanwhile, Perdue’s four major Democratic opponents are trying to win over their party’s faithful with stances that echo those heard on the Democratic presidential campaign trail that would have been unimaginable for the party even five years ago. Stacey Abrams’ run for governor last year with an unapologetically base-pleasing platform helped change that, University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said.
“Up until that 2018 race, the thought among Democrats was if you were running statewide you were afraid of what Republicans would say about you when they linked you to these national Democratic leaders,” Bullock said. “But Abrams embraced them and reduced the margin by which Republicans are winning the state by three-fourths.”
The attention being placed on Georgia by national political groups and the media, intensified by the parallel contest to replace U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, all but ensures the Perdue race will mirror the fierce fight being waged for the presidency.
‘He has to own it’
A nationalized race was something Georgia Democrats once eschewed as they made overtures to moderates and disenchanted Republican voters.
Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn spurned President Barack Obama when he visited the state in the thick of their statewide campaigns in 2014. Three years later, then-U.S. House candidate Jon Ossoff’s early pledge to “make Trump furious” faded, and he kept all but a few lower-profile Democratic figures at arm’s length.
Even Abrams declined to aggressively go after Trump until after her rival, Republican Brian Kemp, won the governorship.
This year, Perdue’s Democratic challengers are all too happy to broadcast the senator’s ties to Trump, especially his loyalty after the president’s blunt comments about African countries and four freshmen congresswomen of color that many considered racist. They’ve also highlighted his continued support of Trump’s trade and disaster relief policies, even as both have led to near-term pain for local farmers.
“He is the enabler of this instability, this irresponsibility, and he has to own it,” said former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, the first major Democrat who stepped in to challenge Perdue.
Perdue sees that close relationship to Trump as an asset, something he emphasizes in all his campaign appearances.
“He calls me early in the morning and late at night. I spend time with him in the White House. Sometimes he’s exhausting, guys, but he works,” Perdue said of Trump at a recent gathering of religious conservatives, one in which he also touted how the president’s 2017 tax cuts, rollback of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul and regulation-slashing ethos that he says have helped turbocharge the economy.
Perdue has admitted that his electoral fate is tied to Trump’s, and it’s not hard to see why. More than four-fifths of Republican voters polled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April said they approved of the president, and Perdue has inched closer to Trump on trade, the one issue where the two men initially had strategic differences. (He says Trump’s end goal of a more equitable trade relationship with China is worth any temporary pinch.)
Much of Perdue’s early campaign messaging has focused on socialism — a political buzz phrase for Republicans — and the sweeping policy overhauls being championed by liberal presidential hopefuls. And even though he’s been loath to mention any of his Democratic challengers by name, he hasn’t hesitated to frame them as mini Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warrens who will erase the economic gains made under the Trump administration.
“Frankly, I don’t think it matters who they put up,” the first-term Republican recently said. “They’re going to be supportive of this radical socialist agenda that you hear the Democratic presidential nominees talking about.”
The message reflects polls that show most Republican voters, especially the older ones who tend to turn out in elections, view socialism negatively. And Perdue’s allies have ramped up efforts to make opponents such as Tomlinson and Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry answer for some of the more divisive positions staked out by Democratic presidential candidates, such as “Medicare for All” and former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s recent call for the government to confiscate AR-15 and AK-47 rifles.
“So many of the Democrats, especially all the presidential contenders, are making socialism sound so wonderful,” said Ginger Howard, Georgia’s Republican national committeewoman who also owns a small business. “David Perdue and President Trump are fighting for the country and what it stands for: capitalism.”
‘A lot of smart people’
Even though none of Perdue’s four opponents has endorsed a Democratic presidential contender, each has taken positions that echo some of those being debated at the top of the ticket.
Ossoff kicked off his Senate run earlier this month with populist-tinged promises to restrict corporate political donations, not unlike those being pushed by Warren and Sanders. Former lieutenant governor candidate Sarah Riggs Amico wants to expand voting rights and tackle income inequality, issues that have been on the forefront of several of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns.
Terry has been complimentary about the middle-class Earned Income Tax Credit plan being pushed by Kamala Harris and recently endorsed the Green New Deal, the sweeping climate proposal popularized by Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“For me, it’s great because there’s a lot of really smart people out there who are putting a lot of really thoughtful and intentional thought into crafting policies that could work,” said Terry, who was a delegate for Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Tomlinson has proposed legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and expanding Medicaid and Medicare to achieve universal health care coverage. She said voters are more concerned about Trump than GOP attacks labeling her as a “socialist.”
Voters “want a steady hand on the wheel of governmental leadership,” she said.
Georgia Democrats’ new willingness to embrace more liberal policy proposals is reflected by polling that shows the energy in the Democratic Party currently on the left. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows that self-identified liberals now make up the largest share of the party’s voters.
And several Senate candidates have been unafraid to show up at the campaign events of 2020 hopefuls as they’ve passed through Georgia.
Amico was in attendance as O’Rourke met with voters in downtown Atlanta earlier this summer, and she recently chipped into New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign as he made a last-ditch fundraising appeal.
Amico said there’s no downside for Georgia Democratic candidates as presidential contenders debate a swath of policy ideas on the national stage.
“I think this is the strength of the Democratic bench on full display for everyone in the country to see,” she said. “These are values-driven arguments about the kind of policies we should have. … I want to be in the fight with all these people.”
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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.