Politics & Government

He’s a Trump defender. Will impeachment talks hurt his chance for re-election in Georgia?

The furor over President Donald Trump’s possible impeachment might loom as a crucial issue for independent voters in Georgia where one of the president’s closest allies faces re-election, Sen. David Perdue.

Democrats remain underdogs in the state. But the party sees Perdue, 69, who’s long been one of the president’s most vocal defenders, as vulnerable as he seeks a second term.

Republicans see outrage over impeachment as a useful motivating tool to get GOP voters to turn out in big numbers for Perdue. But Democrats see Perdue’s support of a president under an impeachment inquiry as a potential risk in a state where Democrats have proven increasingly competitive.

Georgia voters interviewed by McClatchy differed on how they saw impeachment. Other issues like the economy and health care were big concerns.

Meanwhile, Congress returned Tuesday from a fall recess, and House Democrats will be holding hearings and moving quickly towards votes related to impeachment.

In Georgia, what Congress does could impact Perdue’s re-election chances next year. However, there are other factors to consider. Who Perdue faces will make a difference. Demographic changes and a growing division between the state’s rural and urban voters will likely come into play as well.

The Embrace

Perdue and Trump have long been close. Their backgrounds are similar — businessmen with no political experience who ran and won on promises to shake up the Washington establishment.

Perdue, born in Macon and raised in nearby Warner Robins, was a business executive before his first run in 2014. He had some name recognition thanks to his first cousin — former Georgia Governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

Trump and David Perdue first met after Perdue secured the GOP Senate nomination over former Congressman Jack Kingston with 50.9% of the vote in a runoff. Trump and Perdue discussed the race at Trump Tower in New York — the beginning of their friendship.

Though Perdue would go on to win the seat, he constantly faced charges during the election that he was not Republican enough. Those would be some of the same criticisms lobbied against Trump during his White House bid two years later — a thread that further linked the two men together.

“Two short years ago, I was an outsider businessman campaigning for the first time and endured some of the same criticisms being leveled against Mr. Trump today. Through my own experience, I probably understand the Trump phenomenon and the new reality of this electorate better than most,” Perdue wrote in a 2016 Washington Post column.

Once Trump took office, Perdue was lavish with his praise. “We have a person in the White House who is a person of destiny, coming in at an important time when we need to break some eggs in Washington,” the senator told a group of Capital Hill reporters in 2017.

In 2017, Perdue also compared Trump to Winston Churchill, the British prime minister who led that country in World War II.

“He’s nobody’s choir boy, but neither were people like Winston Churchill, for example,” Perdue told a New York Times interviewer. “This guy, I think, is a historic person of destiny at a time and place in America when we’ve got to make a right-hand turn here.” Perdue later told Business Insider that Trump felt that was not a compliment.

Perdue has proven to be a reliable Senate vote for Trump. In 2017, on votes where Trump took a clear position, Perdue voted with him 100 percent of time, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Vote Watch. In 2018, Perdue voted Trump’s way 99 percent of the time.

Perdue has also supported the President over the recent impeachment inquiry as well.

“I have not seen anything that rises to the level of impeachment,” Perdue said in a provided statement. “If Speaker Pelosi was serious about this, she would call for a formal inquiry. Right now, this is nothing more than a show trial with one side trying to drum up anything to obstruct the president.”

The senator’s embrace of the president makes sense, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a Virginia-based research group.

“American politics is so nationalized these days that Perdue’s fate in 2020 may be largely tied to Trump’s showing anyway,” he said.

In fact, voters have shown an increasing propensity to vote for the same party for president and senate since 1992. In 2016, 100% of states holding Senate elections voted for the same party for Senate as for president — the first time that’s happened since 1913, when the 17th Amendment established popular voting as the means of electing senators.

Derrick Dickey, Sen. Perdue’s senior advisor for the 2020 election, said the president will drive base turnout in Georgia, and that both men share the same agenda in many ways.

“In order to continue building on the successes that we’ve had, we’ll be running in tandem in 2020 for re-election,” Dickey said.

Does impeachment matter?

Many Republicans, as well as some independent experts, see outrage over impeachment as a useful motivating tool to get GOP voters to turn out in big numbers for Perdue. Others seem less sure of impeachments effects on the Georgia election.

“It definitely helps him,” said Julianne Thompson, an Atlanta-based Republican strategist.

The Democrats’ push to impeach Trump feeds a longstanding Republican narrative: That Trump and his followers are under attack by Washington elites, said David Johnson, chief executive officer of Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based Republican consulting firm.

Ben Garcia, the 18-year-old chairman of the College Republicans at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, said the impeachment inquiry and previous attempts to implicate President Trump could help the party and its attempts to attract voters.

“(Impeachment) is just another step in the wrong direction for Democrats,” he said. “I think the possible impeachment is a real bonus for Republicans right now. The average American, I believe, is sort of fed up with all this attempting to remove the President from office forcefully.”

Ben Garcia Still1.jpg
Ben Garcia, chairman of the College Republicans at Columbus State University, answers questions about politics, President Donald Trump, and U.S. Senator David Perdue during a recent interview. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

That energy will trickle down to statewide elections like Sen. Perdue’s re-election bid, Garcia said.

“I think it is going to benefit him a lot,” he said. “I think it’s really going to help Sen. Perdue and whoever is running for Sen. (Johnny) Isakson’s vacancy.”

Isakson is resigning his seat for health reasons at the end of the year. Gov. Brian Kemp will appoint a replacement, and voters in November 2020 will choose someone to complete the rest of his term, which is to end in January 2023.

Party loyalty is important to GOP voters, said Brett Daise, a 19-year-old Republican voter and student at Georgia College in Milledgeville.

“I think the impeachment inquiry is kind of a joke,” he said. “I think David Perdue was smart for supporting President Trump because it’s ridiculous that we’re having to go through an impeachment inquiry right now.”

Less partisan experts tend to agree that the impeachment efforts could be good for Republicans, though they warn that things can change quickly.

Kondik, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, warned that in addition to the state’s changing demographics, Democrats could also be energized to turn out in big numbers and that the candidates competing against Perdue could have an effect.

Russ Lee, a 55-year-old independent voter from Savannah, Georgia, said impeachment isn’t a factor yet. Bigger political issues for him include trade, infrastructure and taking better care of the nation’s veterans.

The impeachment inquiry hasn’t factored into his 2020 decisions, but it could if criminal activity is revealed.

“If they were trying to impeach him for … a hard act of treason or some very hard criminal activity, then I say it would weight. But it’s all politics,” he said.

Even if the president is implicated, Lee said that wouldn’t affect his opinion of Perdue unless the senator continued to defend Trump after he was convicted by the Senate.

Another independent voter, 41-year-old Chris Whitehouse of Columbus, said that he didn’t know much about Sen. Perdue.

However, he said he would not vote for any politician who is against the impeachment inquiry. Whitehouse said he also was supportive of the impeachment proceedings against former President Bill Clinton.

“That is definitely a very large, pressing issue for me,” he said of impeaching proceedings regarding Trump. “With what information that has been released to the public, that’s typically just the tip of the iceberg. ...It’s terrifying to think of what we don’t know. I want all of that dirty laundry aired out.”

Others were less sure about the effect impeachment would have on voters.

Impeachment will matter “at the margins,” said Howard Franklin, an Atlanta-based Democratic strategist. He said Trump is already at “peak base,” meaning it could be difficult to attract more people outraged about impeachment.

Matt Krack, a 22-year-old Democratic voter and student at Georgia College in Milledgeville, said while impeachment is the “right step,” many Americans aren’t paying close attention or the issue isn’t at the top of their list.

“The consultant class DC-insiders — they view impeachment as this issue that everyone is paying attention to and that’s going to decide control of the White House and Congress,” he said.

“(But for) people who survive on food stamps, people who just want their kid to have a good education, people who just want to ensure they can work 9-5 and keep a house for their family — impeachment is not the focus of their vote.”

Dickey, Perdue’s advisor, said that Republicans are united behind the president and that many folks have already made up their minds about impeachment.

“A majority of Georgians voted in 2016 to send Donald Trump to Washington, and I highly doubt that many of them want to see that election overturned by an overtly political sham impeachment process,” he said. “Open-minded people who view the facts as they are understand exactly what is happening right now in Washington D.C.”

The Other Variables

Impeachment is only one of several variables that will likely factor in to Georgia’s 2020 races. The biggest involves who will be most motivated to turn out.

“It’s a new style of politics — pitch it to the base and hope they turn out,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which has polled in Georgia.

Thompson, a member of the National Advisory Board of Women for Trump 2020, was confident. “Republicans are committed to President Trump, and Sen. Perdue has been a close ally,” she said.

Remember, Thompson pointed out, the motivation is more than just defying Democrats. “You feel loyalty and appreciation for the president because of his accomplishments,” she said.

Johnson, though, noted that Democrats are also motivated by forces other than impeachment.

One of the big difference-makers could be who runs against Trump, Perdue and others. Popular candidates help drive turnout.

Former Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams nearly became the first African-American woman in America to win a governorship last year, and her supporters are eager for the next election.

While exit polls show the percentage of independent voters has been stable over the last few statewide elections, their votes have proven crucial. In Perdue’s first race in 2014, he won 59 percent of independents’ votes and won the election with 53 percent overall. In the 2018 gubernatorial race, Abrams won 54 percent of the independent vote and came extremely close to defeating Republican Brian Kemp.

Meanwhile, turnout among self-identified Republicans and Democrats has only varied by a couple of percentage points, and both groups have voted overwhelmingly for their party’s candidates.

Then there’s the demographic change. Gov. Brian Kemp won last year largely by rolling up big margins in rural and small-town areas.

But the clout of rural and small-town areas is waning. In 2014, when Perdue first ran, exit polls showed 22 percent of the Georgia vote came from rural areas or small towns. Last year, that percentage dropped to 15 percent. But the share of urban voters, 17 percent five years ago, was up to 22 percent.

Dickey, Perdue’s strategist, said the 2018 elections in Georgia showed that politicians can’t take any vote for granted. But that election, he said, was a snapshot of the moment. Georgia still has a Republican governor, two Republican senators and a majority of its congressional delegation are Republicans.

“We have not lost a statewide election in a long time,” he said. “We’re on a good track right now, and it is up to us to articulate the case as to why Georgia should stay red.”

The economy’s performance will likely dictate how voters, including independents, will cast their ballots in 2020, he said.

In September, national unemployment numbers hit a 50-year low but nonfarm payroll employment counts — which are used by the Federal Reserve for clues as to how the economy is performing — rose by just 136,000. That rise missed the 145,000 estimate from economists surveyed by Dow Jones, CNBC reported in October.

Georgia’s unemployment rate was 3.5% for September, the lowest number since January 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. State economist Jeffrey Dorfman told state lawmakers in late September that there is “about a 50-50 chance of a mild recession” next year amid calls for state agencies to cut budgets and uncertainty about revenue projections, GPB reports.

Bloomberg reports that recession fears have grown in recent months amidst a trade war with China, and that as of Oct. 14, there’s a 27% chance of a U.S. recession at some point in the next year.

Dickey remained optimistic.

“Clearly, those indicators are heading in the right direction, and historically, it shows that when people are happy about the direction of the county then they generally support the people who helped get them there,” he said. “I think that is a key indicator of how elections are decided.”

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.
Nick Wooten is the Southern Trends and Culture reporter for McClatchy’s South region. He is based in Columbus, Georgia at the Ledger-Enquirer but his work also appears in The (Macon) Telegraph and The Sun Herald in Biloxi.Before joining McClatchy, he worked for The (Shreveport La.) Times covering city government and investigations. He is a graduate of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.