Perdue’s embrace of Trump boosts, complicates reelection bid

U.S. Sen. David Perdue holds a rally in November at Peachtree DeKalb Airport with South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
U.S. Sen. David Perdue holds a rally in November at Peachtree DeKalb Airport with South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Editor’s note: This updated profile of incumbent Republican David Perdue is part of a series of stories about the candidates running in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5. Another story focuses on Perdue’s Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has also published profiles of the candidates in the state’s other Senate race, Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock.

President Donald Trump was beginning to hit his tempo at a Cobb County rally earlier this fall when he singled out a supporter donning an American flag neck gaiter a few rows away.

It was U.S. Sen. David Perdue, the president recounted, who in 2018 urged him to endorse then-gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp. Trump obliged, a move that prompted Kemp’s landslide win in that year’s GOP runoff and further cemented Perdue’s position as a Republican power broker in Georgia.

“You made that call,” the president told Perdue as he sat by the governor, who at the time was still on good terms with Trump. “David’s doing a great job.”

Six years after his runaway victory over Democrat Michelle Nunn and a crowded Republican primary field, Perdue has forged a path as one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill.

ExploreU.S. Senate Perdue seat candidate profiles

He counsels the president on issues such as immigration and trade, fielding Trump’s early-morning and late-night phone calls and often joining him on the golf course. His sprawling political network is intermingled with Trump’s, with several of his former aides and a first cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, holding senior positions in the outgoing administration.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, persuaded President Donald Trump, right, to endorse Brian Kemp in the 2018 GOP runoff for governor. The president's support helped Kemp win big in the runoff and then go on to victory in the general election. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, persuaded President Donald Trump, right, to endorse Brian Kemp in the 2018 GOP runoff for governor. The president's support helped Kemp win big in the runoff and then go on to victory in the general election. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Perdue has stood by Trump even in moments in which fellow Republicans have reprimanded him, such as when the president refused to denounce white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va. His allegiance hasn’t wavered as Trump made false claims that he won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes and offered little proof to back up his allegations of widespread fraud and voting irregularities marring the results of the November elections.

Like many of his Senate GOP colleagues, Perdue has yet to acknowledge former Vice President Joe Biden’s White House win. He sided with Trump last month when he called for fellow Georgia Republican Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, to resign due to unspecified “failures” overseeing the state’s elections system.

It’s that coziness with the country’s unconventional commander-in-chief that Perdue’s Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, has seized upon, both in the lead-up to the general election and now as he goes head to head with Perdue in a Jan. 5 runoff. Ossoff frames Perdue as a Trump lackey who refuses to denounce the president’s most dangerous positions, including downplaying the severity of the coronavirus and chipping away at the country’s critical political institutions by denying the results of the presidential contest.

Perdue sees things much differently. That close relationship with the president has helped secure millions of dollars for the state’s top economic development project at the Port of Savannah and magnitudes more in COVID-19 relief money, he says. It’s allowed him to shape tax and economic policy from the inside and advocate for historically black colleges and universities, 10 of which call Georgia home, he added.

“I care about one thing and one thing only, and that’s getting results for the people of Georgia,” Perdue, who has long been rumored to be eyeing higher office himself, said in an October interview. “And (Trump) would say the same thing.”

Perdue has tread carefully since the election. He won’t say Trump lost and has taken great care to remain in the president’s good graces, but Perdue has framed Georgia’s twin runoffs as part of the GOP’s “last line of defense against the Democrats’ dangerous agenda” in the Senate, a tacit acknowledgement of the incoming Democratic administration.

Business roots

The Houston County native, 71, spent decades in business before positioning himself as a deep-pocketed, say-it-like-it-is political outsider when he joined the sprawling field to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss in 2013.

After beginning his career as a management consultant, the Georgia Tech graduate transitioned into the corporate world. He worked in Southeast Asia and eventually moved into executive-level positions for companies such as Haggar Clothing Co., Reebok and Dollar General.

Perdue’s experience as a Fortune 500 CEO was front and center during his inaugural campaign. Among his priorities were reining in the national debt and overhauling the tax code.

Perdue won attention for provocative advertisements that capitalized on voter dissatisfaction with the political establishment and portrayed him as the adult among tantrum-throwing career politicians. But his reputation as a corporate turnaround specialist also invited scrutiny from his opponents, who seized on his 2005 comment that he had “spent most of my career” outsourcing jobs. Positions Perdue held later in his career, including an appointment by his cousin to the powerful Georgia Ports Authority, also raised eyebrows.

Perdue arrived in the Senate in 2015 as somewhat of an agitator, pushing for term limits, reshuffling committee power and canceling Capitol Hill’s beloved August recess — positions that didn’t exactly ingratiate him to his long-tenured colleagues.

But it was his relationship with Trump, whom he first met in 2014, that made many in Washington take notice.

When the president huddled with senior GOP congressional leaders shortly after his inauguration to hash out his first-year agenda, he invited Perdue to sit in. A few months later, Trump gave a little-noticed legal immigration bill co-authored by Perdue a presidential boost when he hosted a news conference touting it in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

President Donald Trump, right, used a White House event to help boost the prospects for a bill on legal immigration that U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue had sponsored. (Zach Gibson/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)
President Donald Trump, right, used a White House event to help boost the prospects for a bill on legal immigration that U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue had sponsored. (Zach Gibson/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)

The friendship has helped Perdue’s popularity soar among the state’s Republican base voters, with whom he holds rock-star status. But there are signs it also hurt his popularity among independents and suburban women who deeply dislike Trump and broke for Biden this fall.

Perdue’s campaign was hoping the Republican’s less bombastic, more business-oriented approach to politics would give him an appeal beyond Trump’s core supporters. But he topped the president by less than 1,000 votes in the Nov. 3 election, which earned him more votes than any Republican in state history but wasn’t enough to avoid a January runoff with Ossoff.

The two are now locked in an expensive overtime contest that, together with a parallel runoff between Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock, will determine which party controls the Senate. The races have attracted international media attention and are shattering fundraising records by the day.

Perdue has limited his public appearances since the general election, conducting interviews only with a few friendly conservative outlets and announcing he wouldn’t participate in any additional debates with Ossoff.

But nothing got more attention than his bombshell joint statement with Loeffler on Nov. 9 urging Raffensperger to resign. Some saw it as an attempt to appease Trump and his supporters upset over Biden’s apparent win in Georgia, and it was flat-out rejected by Raffensperger, who said he would not step down and urged Perdue and Loeffler to “start focusing” on maintaining Republican control of the Senate.

Perdue and Loeffler said Raffensperger “failed the people of Georgia.”

“The mismanagement and lack of transparency from the secretary of state is unacceptable,” they stated.

Some of Ossoff’s recent attacks against Perdue have shamed him for purposefully mispronouncing the name of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at an October rally with Trump. They’ve also pressured Perdue, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, to answer for scores of stock transactions made on his behalf not long after a senators-only briefing on the pandemic.

The Sea Island resident has denied wrongdoing and cut an ad accusing Ossoff of lying about his stock trades, in which Perdue also said his transactions had been reviewed — and cleared — by federal investigators. Perdue later announced his financial advisers would no longer trade stocks in individual companies on his behalf.

Surviving Capitol Hill

If elected to a second term, which he promises will be his last, Perdue lists rebuilding the economy and passing policing legislation as top priorities.

The latter is an issue that Perdue says “feels personal to him,” having grown up in Middle Georgia in the 1960s and watched his father integrate Houston County schools as the local superintendent.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue says that if he wins a second term, his top priorities will be rebuilding the economy and passing police legislation. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)
U.S. Sen. David Perdue says that if he wins a second term, his top priorities will be rebuilding the economy and passing police legislation. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

Over the past several years, Perdue has taken on growing responsibility on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee, where he leads a subcommittee overseeing the Navy, Marine Corps and shipbuilding. That position landed him in hot water in mid-November, when The Daily Beast reported that Perdue had bought and sold stock in a company that made submarine parts after he began working on a bill that directed Navy funding to one of the firm’s products. (A Perdue spokeswoman said the senator’s stock transactions were made without his knowledge by an outside investment adviser.)

Perdue’s recent messaging has emphasized him being part of a GOP firewall against socialism in the Senate.

He’d also like to revisit an old goal. Overhauling the federal budget process, he believes, is the first step toward tackling the country’s spiraling debt and fast-depleting Medicare and Social Security trust funds, which he views as major threats to America’s economic security. In recent years, Perdue signed off on several multitrillion-dollar bills that added to the country’s debt, including the 2017 GOP tax overhaul and this spring’s coronavirus relief package. He said both were necessary to grow the economy.

Six years after moving to Washington, there are still many things about Capitol Hill that make Perdue fume.

Colleagues use procedural tools to slow down confirmation votes. Major legislation can be stalled indefinitely by a minority of senators. And don’t get him started on the chamber’s Obamacare repeal vote or the bipartisan task force on the budget process, which fell apart in 2018 due to partisan distrust.

Perdue says he won’t let those setbacks get in the way.

“I’m still the outsider,” he said. “I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

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