Perdue's debate dodge highlights opening Ga. runoff strategy


MONROE, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 31: Republican senate candidate U.S. Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) speaks during a campaign event at Pot Luck Cafe on October 31, 2020 in Monroe, Georgia. - Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America/TNS

ATLANTA — In the two weeks since the presidential election, U.S. Sen. David Perdue has held one public event, conducted a Fox News interview and announced he wouldn’t participate in any debates with his Georgia runoff opponent, Jon Ossoff.

The first-term Republican’s opening strategy diverges sharply not only from Ossoff, who has accused Perdue of being “chicken,” but also from fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the other Georgia incumbent facing a Jan. 5 runoff to determine control of the U.S. Senate.

Perdue’s campaign points to a busy itinerary as a full-time senator — and the campaign schedule he had in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 vote, when he visited a string of Georgia cities on a bus tour and launched an eight-stop campaign fly-around on the eve of Election Day. All of which is fairly standard for statewide candidates right before an election.

Still, his absence from the starting frenzy of the nationally watched runoffs stuck out. Ossoff held a seven-city, four-day tour that swung from Columbus to the coast. His fellow Democrat, Raphael Warnock, has staged several news conferences and a joint event with Ossoff in the suburbs.

And Loeffler headlined a rally with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that featured Perdue’s dire talking-point warning about a “road to socialism” — but not the senator himself. Instead, Perdue’s wife, Bonnie, delivered a message that her husband’s “entire life has prepared him for this moment.”

The contrast only sharpened on Tuesday when Loeffler announced she would participate in an Atlanta Press Club debate with Warnock — two days after Perdue’s campaign said he wouldn’t appear in any showdowns with Ossoff during the runoff cycle.

“I would welcome another chance to debate Raphael Warnock,” Loeffler told Fox News, adding: “Georgians need to know who he is and I welcome that chance to debate him as many times as he wants.”

Perdue might have a tactical reason to avoid more events. His last debate with Ossoff, shortly before the election, yielded a moment seen by millions of viewers when the Democrat called him a “crook.” That confrontation overshadowed the Republican’s performance. He’s also recently recovered from knee surgery, which some supporters say has factored into his plans.

And unlike Loeffler, who has to win over Republicans who backed her rival Doug Collins in the general election, Perdue already has broad support from fellow conservatives and one of the most famous names in Georgia politics. He outdid Ossoff by about 86,000 votes and earned more votes than any Republican in state history.

“There’s plenty of time. Right now, the Senate is still in session and he’s got responsibility as a U.S. senator that Jon Ossoff doesn’t have,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran Republican strategist who chairs a GOP group supporting both incumbents.

“Georgians want him to fulfill his duties. We are still dealing with the aftermath of the election and then Thanksgiving. My guess is things will wrap up in Washington soon after and there will be plenty of time for him to get out.”

Ossoff, meanwhile, has reminded audiences that he’s willing to do as many as six debates against Perdue as he tries to energize Democrats with jabs at Perdue’s debate dodge.

“He should come out of hiding and debate in public,” Ossoff told reporters Tuesday.

The criticism resonated with John Schwendler, a Kathleen resident who called the Republican an “embarrassment to the state.”

“He’s a spineless incumbent afraid to talk about real issues — means he is scared,” said Schwendler.

In a statement, Perdue spokesman John Burke said Perdue has been “working nonstop: fulfilling his duties in Washington, while also attending campaign events, hosting Zooms, and doing media interviews.”

He added: “No one outworks Senator Perdue — no one ever has, and no one ever will.”

The Republican hasn’t been invisible. Perdue made his runoff debut with Loeffler on Friday at a rally in Forsyth County with U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, though neither Perdue nor Loeffler took questions after the event.

He’s also done two interviews on friendly platforms — a Fox News appearance and a sit-down with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican who supports his campaign. He hasn’t talked with any local reporters in the opening weeks of the runoff — a fact that Ossoff’s campaign has mocked.

Perdue’s schedule is about to ramp up. He’s set to campaign Thursday with U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton and on Friday with Vice President Mike Pence, who is making a two-stop tour in north Georgia.

Ben Fry, the senator’s campaign manager, said Perdue wouldn’t take part in any more debates because he already did two with Ossoff before the Nov. 3 election.

“We’re going to take our message about what’s at stake if Democrats have total control of Congress directly to the American people,” Fry said.


©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)