With little conflict, race for Georgia’s 3rd is about style over substance

The rival candidates running to represent a deeply conservative U.S. House district in west Georgia clashed in a Sunday debate more over their approach to Congress than their policy differences.
All five of the Republicans running in the Georgia 3rd Congressional District raise their hands during Sunday's Atlanta Press Club debate when asked whether they thought Donald Trump was the "rightful" winner of the 2020 election in Georgia. Trump lost that race to Joe Biden, an outcome verified by recounts and investigations.

Credit: Screenshot

Credit: Screenshot

All five of the Republicans running in the Georgia 3rd Congressional District raise their hands during Sunday's Atlanta Press Club debate when asked whether they thought Donald Trump was the "rightful" winner of the 2020 election in Georgia. Trump lost that race to Joe Biden, an outcome verified by recounts and investigations.

The five Republican candidates seeking to fill a deep-red U.S. House seat in west Georgia reached more consensus than conflict as they met for the first time in a debate over the state’s most competitive congressional contest.

Each backed establishing tougher immigration controls, creating stricter abortion limits and increasing financial support for Israel in its war against Hamas. Each opposed sending increased military aid to Ukraine as it battles to fend off Russia’s invasion.

And each raised his hand when asked if he thought Donald Trump was the “rightful” winner of the 2020 election in Georgia, echoing disproven conspiracy theories fueled by the former president’s election fraud lies.

The Atlanta Press Club debate on Sunday highlighted an ongoing dynamic in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson. There’s not much policy difference between the GOP contenders, making the race as much about style as substance.

The May 21 contest for the district, which stretches from metro Atlanta’s western suburbs to the Alabama state line, was drawn by Republicans for a GOP victory. With a June runoff likely, the top contenders tried to mobilize their supporters without tearing down their rivals.

At the center of the contest is Brian Jack, a 36-year-old longtime Trump deputy who has the former president’s endorsement along with support from other key MAGA officials. He used the debate to highlight his pro-Trump bona fides while steering clear of political infighting.

“People remember just how successful they were when Donald Trump was president and we were pushing forth his agenda over those four years,” Jack said during one of a number of times he linked himself to key parts of Trump’s agenda.

Jack’s opponents largely steered clear of attacks they’ve employed on the campaign trail labeling him a creature of Washington or criticizing his work for another former boss, ex-U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Instead, they focused mostly on their own messages, with only the occasional veiled jab at Jack or ex-state Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, who is also performing solidly in scattered polls.

Dugan leaned into his record as one of the chamber’s top Republicans, taking credit for GOP-backed measures that included rewriting voting rules, setting new abortion limits, establishing conservative education guidelines and expanding gun rights backed by Gov. Brian Kemp and other party leaders.

“Did I save the free world? No,” Dugan said. “But I did lower your taxes. I did take divisive concepts out of schools. I did get the heartbeat bill passed. I did get the election security bill passed. I did get constitutional carry passed.”

Ex-state Rep. Philip Singleton, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who often picked fights with House Republican leaders during his stint in the Legislature, said he would go to Congress with a “soldier’s approach and fight on the battlefield for what’s best for you.”

But, Singleton added, he would not take shots for the sake of attracting attention. “I’m not someone that fights against people,” he said. “I fight for good policy.”

Like the others on the debate stage, ex-state Sen. Mike Crane refrained from directly criticizing Trump for picking sides in the race. But given the chance to swipe at Jack, he instead directed a question to voters.

“Do you want to let Washington and the D.C. insiders do what they’ve done for the last several cycles, and that is choose the next representative for the 3rd District?” he asked.

Jim Bennett, perhaps the least known of the GOP candidates, had some of the sharpest quips. He said he entered the race in part because he was infuriated by Ferguson’s votes to raise the debt ceiling. And he professed his admiration for U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s confrontational brand of politics.

“I am not as combative. I’m not going to be as in your face as Mrs. Greene is. I’m more of a person who is going to be polite in the old Southern gentleman kind of way,” said Bennett, a GOP activist. “But that does not mean that I will not be adversarial.”

Few substantive policy differences emerged during the hourlong debate. Bennett, Crane and Singleton each said he would join the conservative Freedom Caucus if elected, while Dugan said he didn’t seek a seat to “join a fraternity.” Jack said he’d leave it up to constituents.

The same trio — Bennett, Crane and Singleton — were open to new abortion limits that could extend to in vitro fertilization. Jack echoed Trump by saying reproductive rights should be left to the states, while Dugan wasn’t clear about how he’d vote on the “deeper question.”

By contrast, all five raised their hands when asked by moderator Russ Spencer, the Fox 5 News anchor, whether they believed Trump was the “rightful” winner of the 2020 election in Georgia.

Trump lost the race to Joe Biden by about 12,000 votes, and the outcome has been repeatedly upheld by recounts, audits and investigations.

Several of the candidates repeated unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and called to overhaul the computerized election system approved by Republican lawmakers and to eliminate drop boxes.

“President Trump never got his day in court,” Crane said, calling it an “abomination and a smear on the state of Georgia that needs to be rectified at some point.”