Three Georgia congressmen running for a seat in the Senate found themselves on the defensive Saturday night, as their Republican rivals urged voters to hold all officials in Washington, D.C., accountable for the nation’s ills.
During a debate in Macon at the Anderson Conference Center, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel lambasted Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston for years of votes that she said added to the national debt. She referred to “accommodating Republicans,” saying “we’re going to hear lots of excuses. ‘It’s Obama’s fault. It’s Democrats’ fault. I voted no.’ Those are excuses.”
David Perdue, the former Reebok and Dollar General CEO, didn’t call the congressmen by name, but repeatedly hammered the national debt and a slow economy that he blamed on a dysfunctional government and everyone in it.
“If you want different results, you’ve got to send a different kind of person to Washington,” said Perdue, a cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Kingston, Broun and Gingrey all pushed back.
Kingston, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, detailed his work trimming federal spending. Gingrey loudly called attention to his support of a balanced budget constitutional amendment.
All three noted their votes against the debt deal in October, though Handel mentioned some of their previous votes raising the debt.
The sparring comes in a primary race that is vital to Republicans’ national effort to regain control of the Senate during the final two years of President Barack Obama’s term. Republicans need a net gain of six seats for a majority, and that would become difficult if they lose the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
That concern was on display before the debate began, as top Georgia Republicans warned several hundred attendees that a splintered party after a bloody primary could lose to Democrats in the fall. The primary is May 20, with an almost certain runoff July 22. The nominee will likely face Democrat Michelle Nunn, whose father, Sam Nunn, once served in the Senate.
“We cannot continue to be ‘one strike and you’re out’ people,” moderator and radio host Martha Zoller, herself a failed congressional candidate, told several hundred people in attendance. “After the primary and runoff, our nominee is going to be bruised and battered and broke, and they will need you to get behind them.”
State Party Chairman John Padgett and Rep. Austin Scott, who represents Macon in Congress, urged Republicans not to repeat the bitterness of the 2012 presidential primary process, when many conservatives were openly dissatisfied with nominee Mitt Romney.
“Barack Obama would not be the president today if every one of us would have gotten over not having the person we might have voted for in the primary,” Scott said, his voice cracking with emotion.
However, local Republicans said they are optimistic about this election year in general and in particular like the odds of holding on to Chambliss’ seat.
The winning candidate will likely have to spend considerable dollars in the primary, then face a Democrat who had no primary opposition. But Middle Georgia Republicans said they do not see that as a disadvantage.
“Some people think having seven candidates would be a bad thing, but I think it’s going to be a good thing,” said Suzanne Wood, chair of the Bibb County Republican Party. “It shows that we have a strong field. We have a very good chance of keeping it in Republican hands.”
Other Republican partisans at the debate had essentially the same opinion.
Doug Deal, a Bibb County Republican who helped organize the debate, said there’s an advantage not only in a large field, but one in which there is no clear front runner.
“When it’s uncertain who is going to win a race, people pay attention,” said Deal.
He said regardless of who wins, he is confident the seat will stay in GOP hands.
“Michelle Nunn I think is a formidable candidate,” he said. “But I think any of these guys can take her. Georgia is a conservative state and I think when that message is put to the voters, they are going to compare the two and stick with a conservative senator.”
Linda Clements, a Kathleen retiree, said she is leaning toward a candidate in the race, but she declined to say who it was. She said prior to the debate that she was most interested in hearing what the candidates had to say on the issue of national security and funding the military.
“It’s going to be a hard decision,” she said. “But I think whichever candidate gets it, they will go strong against her.”
Republicans are holding seven debates around the state, and Saturday’s debate was the fourth.
Telegraph writer Wayne Crenshaw contributed to this report.