Many of the early questions during the hour-long debate, which was hosted by WSB-TV in Atlanta, centered on the candidates’ tax policy and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue’s recent remarks about how cutting spending and increasing revenue are both needed to address the country’s current fiscal situation. His chief rivals have used those comments to accuse him of supporting tax increases.
“Of all the deceitful and false accusations that have been coming my way, this is absolutely the most outrageous,” Perdue said, arguing he has signed a pledge not to increase taxes.
Later, Perdue said he was for reforming the tax structure and implementing a flat tax. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel also said she supports a flat tax, while Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah said he supports the fair tax and touted his endorsement from former Rep. John Linder, a chief proponent of the plan. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta said Congress should evaluate every tax break extension and eliminate those that may no longer be necessary.
Kingston said Perdue had an opportunity at the time he made the remarks to explain his opposition to raising taxes and didn’t. “You should say, ‘I’m against taxes,’” Kingston told Perdue. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Republicans need to gain just six seats in November’s election to win control of the Senate and can’t afford to lose the one retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss now holds. Democrats debated earlier in the day, although front-runner Michelle Nunn didn’t attend.
The GOP debate was scheduled to be televised Sunday at 11 a.m. on WSB-TV and featured frequent clashes between Perdue, who has been leading in the polls, and the rest of the field. Perdue was attacked by Kingston and Handel for not voting in previous Georgia primaries. In response, Perdue said he wasn’t living in the state in 2008 and voted in the 2012 presidential primary. There were general state primaries in 2010 and 2012.
“I have voted in every primary,” Handel said. “That is a very solid and relevant issue, whether you are committed to our party and to our principles.”
Perdue took a swipe at Kingston for touting a project to deepen the Port of Savannah as one of his accomplishments, noting the effort has been years in the making.
“This thing has taken 17 years to deepen that port five feet,” Perdue said, adding China opened a port during that time. “We are losing our competitive edge because the congressman is happy to tell us it takes a long time to get projects done.”
The candidates spent several minutes discussing immigration issues and what should be done about those living in the country without legal permission. All the leading candidates said they felt the first step was to secure the nation’s borders and enforce existing laws. On term limits, Gingrey, Handel, Kingston and Perdue said they support them, while Paul Broun said no.
“The problem is not unlimited terms,” said Broun, who repeatedly cast himself as anti-establishment candidate who only votes for legislation if it’s constitutional, moral, necessary and affordable.
The Republican candidates were also asked whether they would support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has drawn a tea-party challenger in his own bid for re-election. Handel and Perdue said they would not, while the three congressmen would not commit either way.
“I’m going to support whoever will sign off on my drive to change the status quo,” Kingston said.
“I never pledge what I’m going to do until I know who is running,” said Broun, noting he voted against Rep. John Boehner for speaker.
Earlier, the three Democratic Senate candidates blasted Nunn for skipping the debate and accused her of not standing up for Democratic Party values as she goes after Georgia’s conservative voters.
Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, has been campaigning as a moderate and is considered the overwhelming favorite to win Tuesday’s primary over former state Sen. Steen Miles of DeKalb County; Atlanta psychiatrist Branko Radulovacki; and Todd Robinson, who works for the Columbus Fire and EMS Department.
All three pleaded with voters not to make the primary a coronation.
“Don’t let the money win,” Miles said.
Radulovacki said Nunn has offered only tepid support for the Affordable Care Act and that she criticized the law’s requirement that individuals have health insurance coverage. Eliminating the requirement, he said, “would undermine the entire law” by reducing the revenue needed to finance the new premium subsidies for individuals who buy private policies through online exchanges.
Nunn was elsewhere in Atlanta on Saturday, working alongside volunteers improving an elementary school playground. “She’s making a difference today,” said her spokesman, Nathan Click, when asked why she declined WSB-TV’s invitation.