Handel, left, and Perdue, right, debate for the Senate seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Seven Republican Senate hopefuls stood before a mammoth American flag Saturday afternoon for the sixth of seven debates hosted by the state GOP.
In front of a couple hundred voters at the Columbia County Exhibition Center, just outside Augusta, the candidates sought to fortify their conservative credentials on immigration, the 2nd Amendment, abortion and what can be done to improve confidence in the economy.
With so many candidates running for the state’s open Senate seat, none are expected to win a majority of the vote in the May 20 primary. They’re fighting to finish in the top two and advance to the July 22 runoff, when all bets are off.
The name of Michelle Nunn, the likely Democratic nominee, wasn’t mentioned until the final three minutes of the 90-minute debate — symbolic of where the GOP’s focus still is in the race to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel first uttered the Nunn name in her closing remarks, as she portrayed herself as the most electable conservative on the stage.
“I would just love to see Michelle Nunn try to drop the ‘war on women’ on me,” Handel said.
Handel is the only woman in the field of candidates, of which five have at least an outside shot at making the runoff. Former Reebok and Dollar General CEO David Perdue, the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, continually pitches himself as the outsider with the business background, grouping Handel in with the three members of Congress as the “career politicians.”
“Sometimes real change takes an outsider’s perspective,” Perdue said. “Fresh eyes, determination and a bucket-load of common sense. That’s what I will bring to the United States Senate.”
Rep. Jack Kingston, who has been among the top two in recent polls, along with Perdue, said Republicans in the House have “shut down” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and that he intends to take the fight to the Senate against Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He sought to stand out from his House colleagues, Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, but also pushed back against the Perdue’s outsider mantra.
“I’m not going to apologize for being a long-term soldier fighting for the conservative cause,” Kingston said.
Gingrey highlighted his three decades as an OB-GYN to prove he was no professional politician, including delivering 5,200 babies. On government regulations meant to curb climate change, Gingrey quipped that maybe the government should “put a surgical mask on the rear ends of every cow” to stop the release of methane.
Broun said he would “die for your right” to carry a firearm. In emphasizing the blame he puts on both parties for government overreach, Broun mentioned Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, twice, including pushing back against any attempt to pass an immigration overhaul and his vote against Boehner for speaker after the 2010 elections.
Two other candidates, Art Gardner and Derrick Grayson, made their marks on this debate, as well, but they have not raised much money and are unlikely to advance to the runoff.
The Republicans will face off once more next month in Columbus, Ga., before the primary.