Why Georgia Senate GOP candidates are talking Mao and Communism

‘Even in wrestling, you’ve got to have a villain.’
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler are locked in a tough battle in Georgia's special election for Loeffler's seat in the Senate. This week, they lobbed charges at each other over China. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

Credit: Wire

Credit: Wire

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler are locked in a tough battle in Georgia's special election for Loeffler's seat in the Senate. This week, they lobbed charges at each other over China. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

Eager to talk about anything but the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans competing in Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate races have turned to a topic that rarely gets much attention in the state during election season: China.

Suddenly, China is getting top billing by GOP candidates echoing President Donald Trump’s attempts to blame the Asian superpower for a pandemic that’s killed 220,000 Americans and triggered the nation’s worst economic slowdown in decades.

In a tough reelection battle, U.S. Sen. David Perdue has falsely claimed Democrat Jon Ossoff was endorsed by the Communist Party and responded to criticism of the GOP’s handling of the virus by slamming his opponent for selling a documentary to a Hong Kong-based company with ties to China.

“You took money from the Chinese government that originated this virus in the first place,” Perdue said during the first debate with Ossoff.

The back-and-forth in the other race, a 21-candidate free-for-all for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat, is even nastier. Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins have traded fire over links to China as they scramble for pro-Trump votes ahead of an expected January runoff against Democrat Raphael Warnock.

In the past few weeks, Loeffler has blamed China for the president’s coronavirus diagnosis and warred with Collins over legislation that would punish the U.S. rival. On Monday, the tangle sharpened when the congressman accused Loeffler of hanging a portrait of former Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong in her Buckhead home.

The Republicans are taking their cues from Trump, whose prospects for reelection have been damaged by his administration’s response to the pandemic. He has consistently blamed China for the outbreak that originated in its central city of Wuhan and spread across the globe.

“If we would have listened to you, the country would have been left wide open,” Trump told Democrat Joe Biden during the first presidential debate. “Millions of people would have died, not 200,000, and one person is too much. It’s China’s fault. It should have never happened.”

Public health experts often note that China and other countries have managed to contain the outbreak better than the U.S., where the disease has infected more than 8 million people, including at least 340,000 in Georgia.

Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue has tried to slam his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, over a payment of at least $5,000 that a Hong Kong-based firm paid to Ossoff's documentary film company. Ossoff has responded by bringing up a deposition Perdue gave in 2005 following the demise of a textile manufacturer he had headed as its chief executive. “He infamously bragged under oath that he spent most of his career outsourcing American jobs to Asia and that he’s proud of it,” Ossoff said of Perdue. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“I get why they’re doing it. Even in wrestling, you’ve got to have a villain,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Dalton Republican. “And there’s so much anger because of this pandemic you want to point a finger. Democrats point at Trump, so we point at China. That’s what we’re seeing out there.”

Stocks and swipes

Perdue’s pivot to China coincides with polls showing a deadlocked race against Ossoff, who owns a documentary film company. The Republican has seized upon Ossoff’s recent disclosure that his company received at least $5,000 from the Hong-Kong based company.

Ossoff responded to Perdue’s attack during last week’s debate by lamenting the Washington “swamp,” and on Tuesday he brought up the Republican’s remarks in a 2005 deposition about his brief stint as chief executive of Pillowtex, a North Carolina textile manufacturer that collapsed shortly after he left.

“He infamously bragged under oath that he spent most of his career outsourcing American jobs to Asia and that he’s proud of it,” Ossoff said. “And I suppose that it’s that underlying bitterness at how China has been allowed to rip off American workers and the American economy that makes it a potent political issue.”

With two Republicans scrapping over pro-Trump votes in the other U.S. Senate race, the fight over China is getting a different sort of workout.

Loeffler released an all-caps statement demanding that China be held “ACCOUNTABLE” after Trump tested positive for coronavirus, leading Democrats to assail her for ignoring the president’s preference for crowded rallies and public events that don’t require masks or social distancing.

Shortly after, Collins slammed Intercontinental Exchange, the Atlanta-based financial trading platform also known as ICE that Loeffler’s husband owns. He called on Loeffler to urge the firm to oust 10 Chinese state-owned companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange, which ICE owns.

“If you really wanted to get at China, and make sure you hit the Communist Party, you would de-list those companies,” Collins said Tuesday at a campaign stop. “You don’t need legislation to do that, Senator. You could do that right now.”

Her campaign countered by bringing up a Senate bill she co-sponsored that would impose stricter requirements on publicly traded companies with ties to the Chinese government, a measure that’s pending in the U.S. House.

“Maybe if Doug showed up to work instead of being a hypocrite the bill might actually pass,” Loeffler spokesman Stephen Lawson said.

A Mao move

The issue reached a new level Monday during the Atlanta Press Club debate when Collins quizzed Loeffler about whether she still has “the $56,000 portrait of Chairman Mao hanging in your foyer, as was seen on social media."

“Seems a little hypocritical,” he said, "or maybe it’s just enlightening.”

Loeffler countered by accusing Collins of making a series of gender-based attacks on her stint in the U.S. Senate, which began in January after Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her to the seat that retired Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson gave up.

“You’ve attacked my hair, my makeup, how I talk, my clothes, where I’m from,” she said. “You’ve lied about me. You lie about my family. And let me tell you, here’s the truth: I’m here because I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”

A Collins aide said the picture he referred to came from a now-deleted 2018 Facebook photo that was taken down shortly after the congressman mentioned it during the debate. The photo was taken in front of what looked like an Andy Warhol painting or print of Mao Zedong that was inspired by President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972.

Loeffler’s spokesman initially suggested the image was “photoshopped.” He said Wednesday that the senator and her husband do not own the Mao portrait, but that it was unclear whether it was on display in their Atlanta estate in the past. Collins and his campaign say it was not a doctored image, and they intend to highlight it through November.

Democrats, meanwhile, are baffled by the fight.

Charlie Bailey, the party’s 2018 nominee for attorney general, said that if Republicans were truly concerned about China, they would be more critical over Trump’s response to the mass internment of ethnic Uighurs and crackdowns of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

“The leadership of China deserves plenty of criticism from both sides of the aisle. But Republicans are all too comfortable with blaming China,” Bailey said. “They care more about this other-izing and making us fearful of fellow Americans. We don’t control the Chinese government, but we do control our own.”

Staff columnist Jim Galloway contributed to this article.