In response, Ossoff unleashed on Perdue over the GOP’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a topic the challenger spent most of the hour-long debate relentlessly hammering.
“Perhaps Senator Perdue would have been able to respond properly to the covid-19 pandemic if you hadn’t been fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading,” said Ossoff, referencing probes into Perdue’s stock trades. The senator’s campaign says he has been cleared of wrongdoing. “It’s that you’re attacking the health of the people that you represent.”
The heated exchange, which went viral in a Twitter clip that was viewed more than 3 million times as of early Thursday, illustrates a central challenge faced by vulnerable GOP senators forced to follow President Trump’s lead in arguing that the pandemic is improving even as case numbers again significantly rise nationally.
Recent polls have found Perdue, a 70-year-old former business executive serving his first Senate term, running neck-and-neck with Ossoff, the 33-year-old head of a media firm, in a race that would go to a runoff if neither candidate hits 50 percent of the vote. Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel is on the ballot, as well.
The Wednesday debate in Savannah, Ga., came amid an accelerating pandemic that has killed more than 227,000 people in the United States, including more than 7,800 people in Georgia. Ossoff, like many Democratic challengers — including Trump’s opponent, former vice president Joe Biden — have made the novel coronavirus’s relentless toll and the president’s missteps and false statements about it into central platforms.
Ossoff has spent much of his campaign attacking Perdue for playing down the disease in its early days, as well as for voting multiple times against the Affordable Care Act. He returned to that message repeatedly on Wednesday night.
“You did say covid-19 was no deadlier than the flu. You did say there would be no significant uptick in cases,” Ossoff said. “All the while, you were looking after your own assets, and your own portfolio, and you did vote ... to end protections for preexisting conditions.”
Perdue has said that his financial advisers made the multimillion-dollar stock trades, which reportedly included investing in a company making personal protective equipment, and vowed they wouldn’t make such decisions in the future. His campaign also provided the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a portion of a letter from the Senate Ethics Committee clearing him of wrongdoing. The campaign also said the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission had closed probes into the matter, although it did not provide documentation of that, the Journal-Constitution reported.
Perdue has pointed to his votes for other GOP legislation he argues would preserve the preexisting conditions protected under the Affordable Care Act.
As Ossoff has homed in on the pandemic, Perdue has attacked his challenger’s company for working with Middle Eastern and Asian clients, falsely suggesting that Ossoff was “endorsed” by the Communist Party. He returned to those broadsides on Wednesday, when he dramatically pulled out a financial disclosure showing Ossoff’s firm had done business with a Hong Kong entity linked to the Chinese government.
“He needs to own up to it, because sooner or later, we need someone in the United States Senate who will stand up to Communist China,” Perdue said.
That accusation led to another emotional rebuttal from Ossoff, where he pointed to an ad run by Perdue that had enlarged the size of his nose, an anti-Semitic trope. (Perdue’s campaign said the distorted image was an “unintentional error” by an outside vendor.)
“You’ve continued to demean yourself throughout this campaign with your conduct,” Ossoff retorted.