A divided Georgia GOP tries to rally behind David Perdue

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
A divided Georgia GOP tries to rally behind David Perdue

ATLANTA – It would be inaccurate to say that Georgia Republicans have buyer’s remorse over David Perdue’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

Many in the state’s GOP establishment never bought into him. Perdue defeated their preference, 11-term Rep. Jack Kingston, in a crowded and brutal primary earlier this year, which was ultimately decided in a runoff.

So as Perdue has stumbled toward the finish line in a deadlocked battle with Democrat Michelle Nunn — struggling along the way to answer questions about outsourcing during his time in business — there have been tremors of discontent within the GOP over his performance. The 64-year-old businessman is a first-time candidate, and his answers on outsourcing have shown up his inexperience on the stump.

The week before an election is when partisans normally rally behind their party’s choice. So most Georgia Republicans are keeping their complaints to themselves. But those who spoke with Yahoo News made clear that even if Perdue can pull out a win, there is a reckoning for the state party coming after the election.

And there’s a chance Perdue could actually lose. If neither Perdue nor Democrat Michelle Nunn gets above 50 percent, they will compete in a runoff set for Jan. 6 that could potentially decide control of the U.S. Senate.

One of the main Republican critiques of Perdue is that after the July runoff, the nominee and his campaign scorned those who had supported other candidates in the primary.

Georgia Republican U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue, right, poses for a photo with supporter Ed Tracey before going in to vote early, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014, in St. Simons Island, Ga. Perdue is on a statewide tour while running against Michelle Nunn. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

“Since the spring, I have said Perdue’s greatest liability was a personal and campaign arrogance,” wrote Georgia native Erick Erickson, the outspoken founder of Redstate.com and a talk radio host, on his blog in October.

Erickson recounted private conversations with Georgia political and opinion leaders who said their offers to help the Perdue campaign had been ignored. “People who opposed Perdue in the primary, reached out after it was over to pledge support, then never heard back,” Erickson wrote.

Chip Lake, a Georgia political consultant who worked for one of Perdue’s rivals in the primary, Rep. Phil Gingrey, said the bigger problem for Perdue’s campaign after the primary was a lack of time to unify the party.

“I don’t know that he’s been reluctant to reach out,” Lake said. “It’s just a multitude of factors, including time. Because of how expensive a state like Georgia is, David’s had to spend a lot of time on the phone raising money to match what Michelle has been able to put up.

“Time was just not on their side, given that they had such a bruising competitive primary and Michelle Nunn didn’t,” Lake added. “That’s clearly worked against him as he attempted to heal a lot of the wounds that were created by individuals that might have been with another candidate.”

Another Georgia political insider told Yahoo News that after the primary, the attitude emanating from the Perdue campaign was: “We beat the GOP. We made it through the runoff without their help, and we think we’ve got a good handle on what we’re doing.”

But state party spokesman Ryan Mahoney said critics like Erickson may not be looking closely enough. Several people who worked against Perdue in the primary joined his staff after the runoff, Mahoney said. He ticked off the names of four Kingston staffers who joined the Perdue campaign.

It may be that the national mood is bad enough to outweigh any diminished enthusiasm or lingering Republican concerns over Perdue in the state. Chuck Clay, a former GOP state chairman, said that he did not think there would be a significant drag on turnout at the polls from the party infighting.

“The internal sort of fissures, some of those are just natural for the existing palace guard to circle around to maintain their position and their place,” Clay said. “I don’t see any peeling off or going home and sitting on our hands.”

One of Perdue’s advisers played down the conflict. “The party is very united,” said Eric Tanenblatt, who was chief of staff to Perdue’s cousin, former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue. Tanenblatt noted that Kingston recently cut a TV ad for Perdue.

“Any time you have a primary, it takes a while to get people all to coalesce,” Tanenblatt said.

Mahoney argued that “there was more unity now than I think anybody’s seen in a long time.” Perdue’s primary rivals began campaigning for him as soon as the runoff ended, he said.

“Usually after a contentious primary there’s a cooling-off period and then a mea culpa and then they’re all good, but even with that hot primary that lasted forever, the candidates all came together right after the primary and started working together,” he said.

But the discontent is real enough that one anonymous Republican told The Hill that having to vote for Perdue is “disgusting,” and that many others in the party feel the same way.

Talk of divisions within the party can at times seem exaggerated. In private conversations, some Republicans said it’s a sign of the party’s divisions that Perdue and incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal have done separate bus tours.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Michelle Nunn, right, participates in a rally before casting her own ballot in early voting at the Adamsville Recreation Center in Fulton County on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014 in Atlanta. Nunn is running against Republican David Perdue. (AP Photo/David Tulis)

But on the Democratic side, Nunn and gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, former president Jimmy Carter’s grandson, are not traveling together, either.

Still, there is a sense in the polling and on the ground here that Deal has the momentum over Carter, while the Senate race is going to down to the wire.

If Perdue loses on Tuesday, the finger-pointing so far will look mild by comparison.

Georgia is a state in flux, with demographic trends all pointing toward a state that is rapidly becoming younger and more ethnically diverse. Democrats this year have run two youthful, energetic candidates — one of whom is a woman — for statewide office against two older white men. Even if Gov. Deal wins reelection, those demographic changes will only intensify. And when Deal is term-limited out of office, whoever hopes to succeed him on the Republican side could well face off against an African-American politician with an already national profile, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Tanenblatt acknowledged that the Georgia GOP will have to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror after this election, win or lose.

“Over the years, when you control all of state government, there’s a bit of complacency that sets in,” Tanenblatt said. “As a Republican in the state, who was involved back in the late '80s, I can definitely see a difference in the Republican Party. I think there has been a bit of complacency.”

He and Clay, both party veterans, said that as the GOP has dominated statewide offices over the past decade-and-a-half, the vibrancy of its grass roots has ebbed.

And as Republicans got stronger, more power centers — and opportunities for intraparty conflict — emerged. “Now the party has shifted away from party headquarters to the governor’s office and legislative leadership, who have their own PACs and their own agendas,” he observed.

Democrats have pushed this last year to sign up new voters and revitalize their grass-roots organizing efforts. Republicans will need to get back to those basics, and also figure out how to appeal to minority and young voters, if they want to stay competitive.

Said Tanenblatt: “I absolutely think that after this election the Republican Party in this state needs to step back and think about what they need to do to prepare for the future.”