By Beau Evans
U.S. Sen. David Perdue and challenger Jon Ossoff sniped at each other in an hourlong debate Wednesday night less than a week before the Nov. 3 election that echoed attacks the pair have lobbed at each other for months in television and social media ads.
It was the second time Perdue, a Republican, and Ossoff, a Democrat, have squared off directly rather than through attack ads, which have racked up tens of millions of dollars and injected a bitter tension into the race.
Much of Wednesday night’s in-person debate hosted by WTOC-TV in Savannah revolved around keystone issues and political jousting that have come from both campaigns for months in Georgia, as Democrats aim to flip a crucial Senate seat and Republicans seek to stand their ground.
Perdue, a corporate executive seeking a second six-year term in office, has positioned himself as a staunch defender of President Donald Trump’s policies while casting Ossoff as a socialist aligned with progressive Democrats eager to reduce funding for police agencies and apply more government control to health insurance.
Ossoff, who runs an investigative journalism firm, has framed Perdue as an absentee politician more interested in his own personal and financial gain via the power of his Senate office, and slammed Perdue for following Trump’s lead in downplaying the threat of coronavirus during the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days.
Throughout the debate, Perdue slammed Ossoff for not acknowledging ties he had with a Chinese company on his campaign financial disclosure forms, accusing Ossoff of being too cozy with China. Republicans have villainized China this election cycle as the originator of COVID-19.
“Clearly, China was responsible about this [virus],” Perdue said. “What we have to do is hold China accountable, and Jon Ossoff will not do that.”
Ossoff dismissed the accusation, calling it a diversion tactic to avoid talking about the state and country’s response to the virus. After the debate, an Ossoff campaign spokesman said the matter referred to a Hong Kong media company that bought one of Ossoff’s films.
Ossoff also framed Perdue’s comments as a tactic to avoid discussing his stance on health care and insurance coverage. Democratic candidates including Ossoff have posed health care as a key plank in their campaigns this election cycle.
“Blaming the Democrats, blaming foreign countries,” Ossoff said. “As I predicted, Sen. Perdue doesn’t want to talk about COVID-19…. He is going to spend this entire debate deflecting from a substantive conversation about the most serious public-health crisis in generations.”
Ossoff homed in on health care and insurance coverage for long stretches of the debate, claiming Perdue’s votes against the Affordable Care Act meant he sought to gut health-care options for Georgians with pre-existing conditions.
“David Perdue does not care about our health,” Ossoff said. “He only cares about his donors.”
Perdue cried foul on that attack, arguing he supports expanding coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions despite opposing the Affordable Care Act, which he claimed increased health-care costs and limited insurance options for many Georgians.
“What [Georgians] want is protection for pre-existing conditions, get rid of surprise billing, which we can do, and also get at drug costs,” Perdue said. “He’s talking about politics. We’re talking about real potential solutions.
Perdue punched back by drawing attention to a large amount of campaign donations that have come to Ossoff from outside Georgia. Ossoff, in turn, accused Perdue of being in the pocket of insurance companies. Both dismissed the shots fired against them.
Ossoff also addressed past comments on calls from some Democratic leaders and advocacy groups to reduce funding for local police agencies, saying he does not support “defunding” police but does want local law enforcement agencies to “be held to a high standard” when applying for federal grants.
Perdue called that stance double-speak from Ossoff, who he accused of trying to “hide this radical socialist agenda that the Democrats are trying to perpetuate right now.”
Wednesday’s debate did not feature Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel, who participated in the first debate held on Oct. 12. A third debate between Perdue and Ossoff is scheduled for Sunday.
Both campaigns have kept up a steady and intense back-and-forth with polls showing a tight race that could result in a runoff in January, depending on how well Hazel fares on Nov. 3.
A candidate must gain more than 50% of the vote in the general election to win outright. If not, the top two finishers will head to a runoff.
The same scenario holds true for a second Senate race running in tandem with Ossoff and Perdue’s, in which U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is fighting to hold her seat against challenges on two fronts.
Ossoff has campaigned frequently in recent weeks with Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church who has risen as the Democratic frontrunner challenging Loeffler.
Warnock is also battling U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a preacher and four-term Republican congressman looking to edge Loeffler out of an expected January runoff.
The two races have helped elevate Georgia in the national spotlight with the election outcomes capable of potentially tipping the balance of power in the Senate. Energized by the election’s importance, Georgians have begun casting ballots in record-breaking numbers even before Election Day.
Nearly 3.4 million mail-in and early votes had been counted in Georgia as of Wednesday evening, marking a huge surge in pre-Election Day turnout that has already dwarfed early voting in the 2016 presidential election.
State election officials anticipate the final tally in the Nov. 3 election could top 5.5 million votes, shattering past turnout records in Georgia. Early voting lasts through Friday.
This story has been updated to clarify Sen. Perdue’s comments regarding Jon Ossoff and China.