MARIETTA, Ga. — After attacking President Obama over his handling of the Ebola crisis and the Islamic State terrorist group, businessman and Republican Senate candidate David Perdue turned defensive this week when asked about his record on outsourcing jobs.
“The criticism I’ve gotten over the last few weeks is coming from people who really have no business background and really don’t understand, you know, what it takes to create jobs and create economic value — which is really what this free enterprise system is based on,” Perdue told reporters at a Veterans of Foreign Wars social-hall event.
A local television reporter tried again off camera, prompting Perdue to complain that the news media isn’t giving him a fair shake with its “30-second sound-bite business.”
This isn’t how it was supposed to go for Perdue, 64, who faces Democrat Michelle Nunn, 47, in a Senate race previously considered a lower-tier contest that would almost certainly go to the Republican. Instead, polling now suggests a dead heat — raising the strong possibility of a runoff election in January if neither candidate can get 50 percent of the vote Nov. 4.
As some other Senate seats appear to be slipping away, Democrats see a fresh opportunity here — attacking Perdue as a heartless corporate executive and job killer, much as Obama’s campaign did to private-equity manager Mitt Romney in 2012. Perdue said last week that he was “proud” of outsourcing in an attempt to turn around troubled companies.
The recent focus on outsourcing, and Perdue’s decision to vocally defend the practice, appears to mark a turning point in the race, with Nunn gaining ground and even leading the contest in some polls.
It’s all part of a year-long strategy by Democrats to cast Republican candidates as out of touch on economic issues, one that has met with limited success. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has frequently attacked the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, who are bankrolling advertising against Democratic candidates. Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) has labeled Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), her opponent in Kentucky’s Senate race, “Rich McConnell” in ads — a characterization he rebuts. And in Illinois, rebounding Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has relentlessly attacked the private-equity career of his GOP opponent, Bruce Rauner.
In Georgia, Democrats are using money that they have pulled out of other states to help put millions of dollars into ads highlighting how Perdue dismantled manufacturing firms by outsourcing services and jobs to other states and countries. In response, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is spending at least $1.45 million on Georgia airwaves in the final month before the election, while a super PAC supporting Perdue has bought an additional $2 million in ad time.
“It’s been pretty ugly,” said Diane Ryan, a voter from Marietta and a volunteer at the local VFW hall. “There seems to be a lot more campaigning in the area, and the commercials on TV are getting crazy.”
Ryan and others gathered Wednesday at the VFW hall to see Perdue address veterans in a building that once was a skating rink but now holds nightly bingo games.
“I’ve never been in politics before, but as a business guy, I can tell you, my read on this is simple: This president’s figured out how to run the country and run our government without Congress,” Perdue told the crowd. “Using executive orders and regulatory mandates, that has got to stop. If we get the Senate back, it will stop.”
The audience cheered — but most were more intrigued by Perdue’s traveling companion, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who swooped into the state along with other GOP luminaries in recent days to help boost the candidate. Perdue greeted supporters with a tight smile as sweat gathered above his upper lip.
“Tell your friends we’ve got to get the vote out. Tell everybody,” he told one woman.
Perdue was not made available for an interview with The Washington Post, but aides passed along several documents detailing his long career. Raised on a farm outside Macon, he married his elementary school sweetheart and began a business career that landed him in some of the nation's top boardrooms, where he became known as a corporate turnaround artist.
Perdue casts himself as a “different kind of candidate” who would bring business and management skills to the dysfunctional halls of the U.S. Capitol. His campaign Web site touts “Brands I’ve Helped,” including Reebok, Sara Lee, Levi’s and Coach. He is especially proud of reviving the retailer Dollar General; he says he helped create 20,000 jobs as the company expanded into 35 states.
But Democrats are using television ads and several news stories to highlight other parts of Perdue’s résumé, including Pillowtex, a now-defunct North Carolina textile manufacturer. Two years after declaring bankruptcy, the company hired Perdue as chief executive in 2002. He left less than a year later, and Pillowtex soon shuttered as Perdue moved on to revive Dollar General.
One Nunn ad includes a clip of Perdue’s “proud” remark with the kicker “David Perdue: He’s not for you.”
Another 60-second spot tells the stories of former Pillowtex workers, featuring ominous music, footage of vacant factories and visibly sick employees. At the end, an older woman says Perdue “left all of us sitting there holding the bag. There’s nothing in it.”
The ad bears a striking resemblance to some of the most effective TV attacks on Romney in 2012. Those spots also starred laid-off workers and featured similarly gloomy imagery. Nunn’s ads are produced by the same Democratic firm that produced the ads against Romney.
Nunn spokesman Nathan Click said the ads are meant to “give Georgia voters a very clear indication of who he is and who he is in this race for.”
Perdue is fighting back with two ads released in recent days. Wearing a loosened necktie in a direct-to-camera appeal, he says, “I’ve helped create and save thousands of American jobs, regardless of what Michelle Nunn says.” Then he suggests that Nunn would “fit right in” on Capitol Hill as images of babies flash on screen.
In another message designed to shore up support among female voters, four women suggest that Nunn is attacking Perdue because she lacks clear policy positions on education, national security and the economy.
The ad war is expected to persist through Election Day — and will continue for two more months if a lesser-known libertarian candidate forces Perdue and Nunn into a runoff election Jan. 6.
NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins acknowledged Thursday that the race was tightening but said the party does not think Nunn can clear 50 percent of the vote in November. “The concept that she could win outright is a bridge too far,” he said.
Erick Erickson, a popular Georgia-based conservative radio host and blogger, said many Republicans are discouraged because Perdue didn’t cultivate GOP politicians, activists and donors after winning a tight primary in July.
“Some of them tried to reach out after the election and never heard back. And then there are others that because of their position expected that Perdue would reach out to them and never did,” he said. “It’s almost as if he’s running as an outsider and now he’s running outside the party apparatus as well.”
Democrats hope the outsourcing attacks will resonate in a state such as Georgia, which is still red but moving blue amid changing demographics. Romney won the state in 2012 by 7.8 percentage points, the second-narrowest margin in states he carried.
Rep. Phil Gingrey (Ga.) was one of six Republicans to challenge Perdue in the primary and was among those who raised doubts about Perdue’s business career. But Gingrey said Nunn’s attempts to color Perdue as a heartless corporate figure won’t work.
“When your opposition research doesn’t turn up very much against your opponent, you grab anything that might stick and you try to go with it,” he said. “It didn’t stick in the primary for we Republicans, and I don’t think it’s going to stick in the general election.”
Outside an early-voting location in Marietta, Lucinda — an elderly woman who declined to give her last name — said she and her husband have frequently seen the Nunn ad starring “those ladies who lost their jobs in North Carolina.”
“I don’t think they were treated fairly,” she said. “The common man needs a job. In this country, we need jobs. We don’t need them overseas. Why would someone vote for you if you’re going to outsource jobs?”
But Mike O’Brien, 63, of Kennesaw, who retired a few years ago from a manufacturing company, said the Nunn ads “are not a fair characterization” of Perdue.
“You make decisions in business based on shareholders and other stakeholders,” he said. “Sometimes it’s cheaper to go outside the company or outside the country, sometimes it’s not. We’ll see what people think.”