Former Sen. David Perdue, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp, right, will participate in three debates ahead of the Republican primary for governor on May 24. Both campaigns have attacked each other over the handling of elections, the timing of a gun expansion law, and comments about the performance of law enforcement. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
Former Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue notoriously skipped the debate stage when eventual 2021 runoff winner Democrat Jon Ossoff appeared next to an empty podium in their 2020 contest.
But as he mounts a primary battle against former political ally turned foe Gov. Brian Kemp, Perdue is signed on to take the debate stage this time around to try out his increasingly sharpened attacks for Georgia broadcast viewers to chew on.
With the 2022 primary season in full swing, attention is shifting to the role that in-person debates will have on electing party nominees for U.S. Senate, secretary of state, Congress and governor. Kemp and Perdue, who carries the endorsement of former president Donald Trump, are set to square-off several times over the course of eight days.
As the debate schedule picks up heading into the May 24 primary, candidates will have opportunities to differentiate themselves and blister their competitors, try to take advantage of Senate frontrunner Herschel Walker’s absence from the stage to hurt his polling advantage, and provide more insight into the power of a Trump stamp of approval in seven key Republican primaries.
The most anticipated statewide debate will take place in round one of the governor’s race, when Kemp and Perdue are scheduled take the stage on Atlanta’s WSB-TV on April 24, Savannah’s WTOC on April 28, and the Atlanta Press Club and Georgia Public Broadcasting on May 1. Other candidates of both parties have been invited to take their turn at the podium.
Perdue’s run for governor was strongly encouraged late last year by Trump, who publicly blasted Kemp for refusing to illegally overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden, who was awarded all 16 of Georgia’s electoral votes.
The former Senator is not the only candidate hoping to benefit from the Trump bump as he tries to overcome deficits seen in recent polls. Trump is also endorsing “stop the steal” conspiracist U.S. Republican Rep. Jody Hice in the primary for the state’s top election chief against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle, another candidate questioning the results of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election. Trump pressed Raffensperger in a phone call to “find” enough votes to give him a victory over Biden before the electoral votes were certified in early January 2021.
In the GOP primary for one of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, Trump has endorsed former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker over five other GOP candidates, vying to face Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in the Nov. 8 election.
Audrey Haynes, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, said what happens in a general election debate won’t sway the vast majority of voters who tune in to watch their candidate’s opponent perform poorly. And in a primary debate, often it’s hard to puzzle out differences among candidates within the same party, but this year seems to be the exception to that rule, she said.
“In Georgia right now, you have a group of Republicans who are very Trump, who buy into this non-factual idea that the election was stolen.” Haynes said. “They are looking at people who Trump has endorsed and has given that stamp of approval or who sound like Trump in their talking points.
“And then there’s another part of the party that may be more concerned with the more traditional GOP politics and less of the cult of personality,” Haynes said.
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There will be more Congressional debates and forums throughout the state in the coming weeks.
From May 1-3, Georgia Public Broadcasting will livestream and broadcast the most comprehensive schedule, with debates scheduled for governor, Congress, secretary of state, lieutenant governor, and other races, as part of the Loudermilk-Young Debate Series.
Warnock doesn’t face primary opposition and Stacey Abrams is assured of carrying her party’s standard in the governor’s race, a potential rematch of the contest she lost narrowly to Kemp in 2018. The party’s other races, including campaigns for secretary of state and attorney general, should provide an opportunity for a more spirited contrast as candidates who haven’t yet won statewide office get a chance to introduce themselves to a larger audience.
But for candidates like Walker with a strong lead heading into their primary according to several polls, the debates figure to only hurt them should they make a gaffe. In Walker’s situation he would also have to deal with opponent’s criticism of his domestic violence history and questionable claims of his business acumen, Haynes said.
Walker being a no-show for the first major Republican Senate debate held Saturday in Gainesville is fodder for his GOP primary opponents, state Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black, contractor and military veteran Kelvin King, ex-state Rep. Josh Clark and former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler.
Haynes said Walker’s absence gives other candidates more opportunity to attack him for being afraid to debate while also getting their message across, something that’s more difficult when there is a dominant presence in a larger pool of candidates.
“When you’re sitting there, and it is a debate with multiple candidates, you’re more likely to have more undecided voters in that group, so their performance can matter,” she said.
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