OPINION: Meet the 2022 David Perdue

Former U.S. Senator and Republican candidate for Governor of Georgia David Perdue waves to supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump after speaking at a rally at the Banks County Dragway on March 26, 2022, in Commerce, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Former U.S. Senator and Republican candidate for Governor of Georgia David Perdue waves to supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump after speaking at a rally at the Banks County Dragway on March 26, 2022, in Commerce, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images/TNS)

The last time David Perdue won a statewide race in Georgia, it was 2014, Barack Obama was the president, and Purdue was a recent Fortune 500 CEO who had never run for office.

His first ad in the GOP primary introduced him as a sort of level-headed rich dad, friendly and handsome enough to play one on TV.

Four babies, meant to be the elected Republicans he was running against, cried their eyes out before a smiling Perdue appeared.

“Help me change the childish behavior up there,” he said, as convincing and calm as a hostage negotiator. “If we want different results in Washington, we have to send a different type of person to Washington.”

His nice dad approach worked and Georgia did send a different kind of person to Washington. But fast forward eight years, and the biggest difference between Perdue’s 2022 race for Governor against Gov. Brian Kemp and the man who ran for Senate in 2014 seems to be Perdue himself.

Gone is the nice dad, suddenly replaced by an angry grandpa alongside former president Donald Trump, channeling Trump’s rage about the 2020 elections and challenging Kemp, his former ally, in the same GOP governor’s race Perdue once promised to support Kemp for.

On stage with Trump on Saturday, Perdue falsely declared that the 2020 election and his own runoff were “absolutely stolen!” Moments later, he promised to jail “the people responsible” and gave a big thumbs up to the crowd chanting, “Lock him up!” referring to Brian Kemp.

Where has the old David Perdue gone? It’s the most frequent question I get from people outside of Trump’s world. They’re the same voters who will decide between Perdue and Kemp in May and between one of those two men and Stacey Abrams in November.

To see which Perdue is out in the real world meeting voters away from Trump rallies, I went to Fayetteville Tuesday to see him stumping, along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The Perdue I saw Tuesday was a smooth, cheerful handshaker, smiling the nice-dad smile we knew from 2014.

“Nice jean jacket!” he told a Trump supporter named Lisa, who asked that her name not be in the paper. She said she decided to vote for Perdue for governor once she realized, “He’s not a RINO, he’s like Donald Trump.”

Dressed in a tailored windowpane blazer and open-collared shirt, Purdue told the standing-room-only crowd that he’s challenging Kemp for many reasons, but especially to make sure a Republican wins the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in Georgia. That would flip the chamber to the GOP, stop the Biden Administration in its tracks, he said, and make way for a Republican president in 2024.

He also talked about the “woke mob,” eliminating the state income tax, crime in Atlanta, and giving parents more control over schools. But it was election fraud that got people going.

Perdue didn’t chant “Lock him up!” or declare the election stolen, but instead said, “The truth is going to come out sooner or later.”

That was good enough for Linda Hall, who wore a “Trump won” t-shirt and said she’s opposing Kemp “because of what Kemp did during the 2020 election.”

After his speech, Perdue told me that he had misunderstood the chant Saturday night of “Lock him up!” about Kemp. “I really thought they were saying, ‘Lock them up,” something Kemp’s team called, “yet another embarrassing gaffe.“

”Perdue’s clown car campaign just went from sad to downright dangerous,” his spokesman said.

Along with his sometimes Trumpish demeanor, some other elements of Perdue’s campaign have not immediately added up this year.

Take his proposal to eliminate the state income tax in Georgia. The $14 billion it generates makes up nearly half of the state’s $30 billion budget.

It’s an idea that was implemented in Florida and eight other states.

Kemp told me in an interview as the legislative session got underway this year that he was open to a conversation about it. But he’s never seen the math that would make it feasible. “That’s something that’s easy to say,” but hard to do, Kemp told me.

In Fayetteville, Perdue said the state income tax would actually be pretty easy to eliminate if someone would just try.

“First of all, you have to rationalize the sales tax and all the credits and tax deductions there, and you rationalize the state income tax,” he said.

”Rationalizing” tax exemptions means eliminating or changing them, although Perdue did not say which ones he’d change.

Included on Georgia’s famously long list of items that are not subject to sales taxes are groceries, gold, personal services like hair cuts, hearing aids and oxygen.

Perdue added that he’d also like to see the state’s $4 billion surplus, which the Legislature is using to finance tax refunds, and other “election-year giveaways,” as Perdue called them, go toward eliminating the income tax entirely.

The final piece of Perdue’s candidacy that hasn’t always added up, even for other Republicans, is the idea that challenging the incumbent Republican governor is the way to unify the deeply divided party.

Greg Clifton, a Republican and a former mayor of Fayetteville, was one of several in the room I spoke with who is worried that a brawl like the one playing out between Perdue and Kemp will only guarantee a Stacey Abrams victory in November.

Clifton is looking for “the most conservative person who can win.” He believes that’s Kemp right now.

They can win in November, he said, “If Republicans come to their senses. but that’s like herding cats, so I don’t know about that.”

It has to be said that Perdue is campaigning more now than he did in 2020. And he seems happier doing it.

At events like the one Tuesday, he’s telling Trump supporters what they want to hear, but he’s smiling at the same time. He’s staying for pictures with voters and doing interviews with the press.

It’s a cross between 2014 Perdue, who won, and 2020 Perdue, who lost. What happens in 2022 won’t just tell us who David Perdue is, but who Georgia Republicans are, too.