Georgia Senate Brawl

Patricia Murphy

Downtown Perry, Georgia is the sort of place you could roll a ball through with one pitch. The coffee shop on the corner is called “The Coffee Shop.” A few doors down, Jack West, the local barber, has been cutting locals’ hair for 64 years. The rest of Perry, with its population of around 15,000, is ringed by churches, pecan groves, and cotton fields.

But the little town in middle Georgia is now at the center of this year’s increasingly ugly Senate race, pitting one longtime Perry family against another as Democrat Michelle Nunn, the only daughter of Perry’s most famous product, former Senator Sam Nunn, faces off against Republican David Perdue, a Perry native whose cousin, former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, still lives there, along with a contingent of Perdue cousins, children, and extended family.

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The contest between two of the town’s most respected families has recently transformed from a polite affair into an all-out brawl as more than $15 million of outside money has poured into the state and as razor-thin poll numbers have ratcheted up the pressure on both campaigns. The result has been a storm of leaked documents, oppo dumps, whisper campaigns, of the campaign, particularly Perdue’s attacks on Nunn.

The most controversial of those attacks has been one stating that Nunn “funded organizations linked to terrorists” as the CEO of President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. The charge quotes a Nunn campaign document, a kind of self-oppo-research paper that referred to Points of Light’s funding of an Islamic relief group. But the document merely warned of the possibility of such an attack; it did not say the attack would be accurate. Neal Bush, the former president’s son, has called the ad shameful, while Michelle Nunn called it “a terrible lie.”

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For her part, Nunn has run a series of ads featuring women who worked at two of Perdue’s former companies, including one woman wearing an oxygen mask struggling to breathe. Another ad asks, “Can the women of Georgia trust David Perdue?”

“It’s just not the sort of thing you expect from those two families,” said a Perry woman in front of Ashley Marie’s Boutique, who didn’t want to use her name talking about anyone else in town. “I saw the debate and it was horrifying.”

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The debate she spoke of had taken place earlier in the week at the Georgia National State Fair in Perry, down the road from Sam Nunn Boulevard and David Perdue Elementary School. Sandwiched on the fairgrounds between the sheep rodeo and Robinson’s pig races, Nunn and Perdue squared off in front of a crowd so raucous the event seemed more like “The Jerry Springer Show” than an off-year Senate debate.

Perdue kicked off the debate with a greeting. His “Welcome to Perdue country!” was a reference to both the large Perdue family presence in the area and to the fact that although Michelle Nunn was born in Perry, her family moved to Washington when her father was elected to the Senate in 1972 to represent Georgia. Nunn has lived and worked in Atlanta for more than 25 years since then, but the “carpetbagger” accusation persists from Republicans.

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Nunn spent much of her time that night, and throughout the general election, painting Perdue as a greedy, callous corporate boss, and hitting Perdue for his own time outside of Georgia— decades as a top executive around the globe, including time at firms that either outsourced or ended American operations.

“David…talked about all these countries, Thailand and Singapore and India and Pakistan, but not once did he talk about creating jobs in the United States,” Nunn said in the debate.

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Perdue dismissed Nunn’s attacks as “desperate,” asked if Nunn’s campaign wasn’t “a well-funded attempt to deceive Georgia voters.” He also repeatedly tied her to President Obama, whose approval ratings in the state hover in the 30s. “He hand-picked her. He funded her,” Perdue said. “Do you really think she’s not going to support him once she’s there?”

Outside of the debate arena, the themes on voters’ minds were the same as those on the debate stage. Kat Smith-Tice and Leslie Davis drove to Perry from Atlanta with David Perdue signs in hand. Both women work with their husbands’ small businesses and pointed to health-care reform as their primary reason for supporting Perdue.

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“I think the biggest thing that’s slowed the economy down is Obamacare,” said Smith-Tice.

Davis agreed: “Obamacare is a mess. We all know our health-care system wasn’t working but (Congress) needed to sit down and figure it out instead of shoving this piece of crap down our throats.”

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Teresa Vance went to the debate from Atlanta to cheer on Nunn. “I think she has the same integrity as her father. She has a mind of her own, she’s not a parrot,” she said. “If Congress can’t start compromising, we can’t have change.”

Vance said she found the rowdy Perry debate “thrilling,” but the bare-knuckled brawl wasn’t as welcome in Perdue and Nunn’s shared hometown.

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“If you say a bad word about someone here, it gets around fast,” said Jack West, the barber. West said local support for Nunn and Perdue seems “about neck and neck” to him based on yard signs and customers’ comments he’s observed. He praised both the Nunn and Perdue families, but declined with a smile to say who he’s voting for. “That’s not good for business.”

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