‘A Fine Line’: Sen. David Perdue Navigates Trump Alliance In A Tight Race

President Donald Trump — flanked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R- Arkansas, left, and Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia — speaks at the White House in 2017. It’s a “fine line” Perdue has had to walk on the campaign trail in terms of his relationship with Trump, said Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist.

Evan Vucci / Associated PRess file

Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff are in a tight race that’s become the most expensive statewide election in Georgia history, and Perdue’s close alliance with President Donald Trump has become a central focus.

That was clear after Perdue appeared to intentionally mispronounce Sen. Kamala Harris’ name at a Trump rally in Macon last Friday.

Ossoff has repeatedly tied it back to Perdue’s White House connections:

“Well this is what President Trump has unleashed,” Ossoff said at a Tuesday press conference. “Sen. Perdue imitates the president and stoops to mocking people for how their names are pronounced. And I think why this has struck such a cord, is that this is what people find so offensive about President Donald Trump’s leadership.”

Ossoff also translated it into a major fundraising moment for his campaign, raising nearly $2 million in about two days.

In a statement Friday, Perdue’s spokeswoman Casey Black said it was simply a mispronunciation and “he didn’t mean anything by it.”

‘A Dual Track Race’

It’s a “fine line” Perdue has had to walk on the campaign trail in terms of his relationship with Trump, said Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist.

“[Perdue] is a friend of the president. He has voted with the president. He doesn’t shy away from that in his conversations, or in his policy messages,” he said.

“But he also has the interesting problem of the northern suburbs in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where the swing vote is. And while those voters like the president’s policies, some of the independent swing voters — both men and women — have a little bit of a problem with the president’s tweets or his personality.”

At a press conference in Atlanta, Jon Ossoff said Sen. David Perdue's mispronunciation of Sen. Kamala Harris' name is evidence of "what President Trump has unleashed." (Emma Hurt/WABE)
At a press conference in Atlanta, Jon Ossoff said Sen. David Perdue’s mispronunciation of Sen. Kamala Harris’ name is evidence of “what President Trump has unleashed.” (Emma Hurt/WABE)

Perdue has had to run a “dual track race,” Garrett said, speaking to those swing voters and to predominantly white voters in rural Georgia where the president’s approval ratings are through the roof.

In part, because of this relationship, Perdue is seen as a “vulnerable Trump acolyte,” which explains much of the money pouring into the state to defend and defeat Perdue, said Stefan Turkheimer, a Democratic strategist from Georgia.

“All of the Democratic energy is anti-Trump energy,” he said.

“[Perdue] doesn’t do any of the things that would be necessary to move his brand away from Trump’s and so he’s going to live or die on what Trump ends up doing in Georgia.”

According to Atlanta public relations firm Matrix, which tracks campaign finance, at least about $180 million has been spent in the race on traditional advertising alone, on both sides of the aisle.

Plus, Perdue “has the same problem Trump does,” Turkheimer argues. “Perdue, in 2014, ran against the establishment. He said, ‘All these things you don’t like about government. I don’t like them, too.’ But now he’s actually part of it.”

Perdue’s campaign slogan is the “original outsider.”

In an interview, Perdue said he thinks the results of his high-profile alliance are what Georgia voters pay attention to.

“It’s not about being close to Trump or not. I’ve had influence in this administration, which is what I’ve wanted,” he said, citing the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement and the U.S.-China trade relationship.

“There are some things we agree on and some things we disagree on, but when he and I disagree, we do it in private, and we come to resolutions,” Perdue said.

Garrett said he thinks Perdue has been able to pull off walking that “fine line,” and polling slightly ahead of the president consistently.

“Now, the outside money is doing a lot to try to tie [Perdue] back to Donald Trump in the suburbs,” he said. “But I think his campaign and his groups are doing a pretty good job of letting him bob and weave, distinguish himself that he is his own person. That he has his own personality”

Perdue’s own campaign ads hardly mention the president. And he earned more votes than Trump in Georgia’s June primary.

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory, agrees Perdue has been able to walk that fine line, but “whether it pays off, I think, has more to do with larger national conditions than anything else.”

Namely, she said, whether overwhelming Democratic turnout manifests itself in Georgia and across the country.

Still, statewide polls are close, both for Perdue and Trump, which has been a long time coming in Georgia, Gillespie pointed out.

“Yes, this particular election cycle may make these races particularly competitive. But this started well before the 2020 cycle,” she said.

“Whereas 15-20 years ago, Republicans could expect to win statewide contests by double-digit margins … it’s a matter of when not if at this point, a Democrat is actually going to be able to pull off a narrow victory.”

Almost no polls show Perdue or Ossoff winning more than 50% of the vote. And in Georgia, if no candidate wins the majority, the top two face off again in a January runoff.