The debate in south Georgia was the first of seven planned by the state party before the May 20 primary. The next debate will be in Kennesaw on Feb. 1.
Seven of the eight Republicans in the race participated in the 90-minute event, held before a crowd of several hundred people in a high school performing arts center.
All are vying for the seat held by Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring at the end of the year.
While the candidates agreed on many of the issues, there was a robust effort by some of the candidates to draw a distinction between themselves and the three congressmen who are in the race.
They are Republican Reps. Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Jack Kingston of Savannah. Gingrey was the only candidate not to appear at the debate, citing a scheduling conflict.
“I thought a lot about getting in this race, and I’m in it because we have a full-blown financial crisis that I believe our career politicians have created,” said former Dollar General and Reebok CEO David Perdue, who is also the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue. “To get different results in Washington, I think we have to send a different kind of person to Washington.”
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel echoed those comments, saying “accommodating Republicans” were also responsible for too many taxes and regulations.
“Career politicians have just kicked the can down the road,” she said, adding her record includes cutting the budget of Fulton County when she served as the county commission chair. “The individuals on this stage who say they have tried, that’s not good enough. I have cut the budget.”
Art Gardner, a patent attorney, described his opponents as “either of the political class or self-funded millionaires” and then directed most of his argument toward those who have held elected office.
“If you think that everything is great in the government, vote for one of these candidates and you will get more of it,” Gardner said. “If you like the government shutdown and the bickering, vote for one of these candidates because you will get it.”
In response, Kingston sought to use his record to make a case for fiscal responsibility, saying he had reduced his office budget by $1.3 million and passed legislation that reduced federal spending.
He also said he was not afraid to take votes against his party, telling a story about how then-Vice President Dick Cheney had called him asking him to support the federal bank bailout.
“We have 47 different federal job training programs. If one worked, we wouldn’t need the other 46,” Kingston said. “That is what I have been fighting.”
Broun, meanwhile, argued he had a long history of voting no and proposing alternate legislation, including one pending to replace the federal Affordable Care Act.
He also called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, drawing applause from the crowd.
“Spending too much, borrowing too much, regulating too much, sticking its ugly nose into our business too much,” Broun said. “That must stop. Both parties are guilty.”
On the issues, the candidates were largely in agreement, with most saying the federal deficit must be reduced and calling for a balanced budget requirement and a full repeal of the federal health care law.
The candidates also agreed that any U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee should be committed to a strict interpretation of the Constitution.
The one question that sparked some substantial discussion was on agriculture, a key issue in rural south Georgia. Kingston said the country needs a decent trade policy and to expand oil drilling, while farmers need “decent access to labor.”
That prompted Perdue to respond: “This is a perfect example with what is wrong with our Congress. I hear all the rhetoric about low energy. This Congress has never given us an energy bill.”
The other candidates in attendance were businessman Eugene Yu and network engineer Derrick Grayson.