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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Childish Georgia Ads

TV ads in Georgia’s GOP Senate primary have taken a childish turn.

Ads depicting his opponents as helpless, crying babies have helped multimillionaire businessman David Perdue take a lead in the polls over a crowd of rivals that includes three House members and a former secretary of state.

Now the best-funded of those rivals, Rep. Jack Kingston, is lashing back with a spot likening Perdue to an infant with a stinking diaper — while making some deceitful claims about Perdue’s business record. And Karen Handel, another strong rival, is running an ad that claims Perdue criticized Georgians who don’t have college degrees, when in fact he criticized only Handel.

Perdue’s Crybaby Ads

Perdue has surged to the lead in the race since launching his first ad back in February, in which he depicted Kingston and other opponents as infantile politicians who don’t understand the economic system and can’t accomplish anything.  “Help me change the childish behavior up there” in Congress, he said in that one. His latest, titled simply “4th TV Ad,” repeats the same theme and images. “The decision in this election is very simple,” Perdue says straight to the camera. “If you like the results coming out of Washington right now, then pick one of these four professional politicians.” And again, the crying babies appear on screen.

Perdue’s ads are mainly expressions of opinion. He describes himself as “the outsider” in the race, for example. Indeed, the closest he comes to being an insider is that he’s a cousin of Sonny Perdue, a former two-term governor of the state. David himself has never held public office. And it’s also true, as he claims, that Dollar General flourished during his time as CEO.

Kingston’s counter-attack, however, is another matter.

Kingston’s Ad: What Stinks?

Kingston launched his own baby-themed ad May 9, depicting “Davey” Perdue as a food-smeared infant with a loaded diaper. The title: “Stinks.”

That word also could describe the ad’s attack on Perdue’s business record. It makes multiple misleading claims about Perdue’s eight-month tenure as CEO of the struggling textiles giant Pillowtex from July 1, 2002, to March 27, 2003.

The episode was Perdue’s biggest failure in business, and he understandably leaves it off his political resume. But Kingston’s ad attempts to twist that embarrassment into something even worse:

  • “Perdue chewed up businesses,” the ad says, using the plural. Actually, the ad refers to the single instance of Pillowtex. Perdue had been a star in his previous career at Reebok International, rising to executive vice president of the company and CEO of the brand. And he went on to be CEO of Dollar General from 2003 to 2007, during which time the company grew and flourished.
  • The ad claims that “8,000 jobs were lost.” It’s true that almost that many were lost when Pillowtex finally announced on July 31, 2003, that it would cease operations and liquidate. According to a 2003 Charlotte Observer investigative story, the number was actually 7,650. That was the biggest mass layoff in North Carolina’s history, to be sure. But it happened months after Perdue had moved on to head Dollar General. Furthermore, the Observer story says Perdue found the company was worse off than he had been told when he agreed to take the job. Among other things, he discovered an estimated $41 million in unfunded pension liabilities that the company didn’t have the money to pay.
  • The ad says Perdue “took a million-dollar bonus.” That’s true — but the ad fails to mention that it was a signing bonus, to entice him away from the number-three spot at Reebok. He got no bonus for his performance as CEO.

There’s no question that Perdue failed to save Pillowtex during his eight months as CEO. But it was a deeply troubled company when he walked in the door, and the worst that the Observer’s reporting says of him is that he should have looked more critically at the rosy projections he was given before he agreed to take the job. The ad’s portrayal of him as profiting at the expense of the company’s workforce is simply a deception.

More Deceptions

“Obama’s Stimulus.” After saying Perdue took a million-dollar bonus, the ad says in the same breath, “and also millions more from Obama’s stimulus.” Perdue didn’t receive any stimulus money personally, and neither did any company he managed. The ad refers to $3.4 million received since 2009 by Alliant Energy Corp., mostly to help upgrade an electric grid in Wisconsin. Perdue is one of 10 members of Alliant’s board of directors, but he holds no management position there. The $3.4 million amounts to just a bit over one-tenth of 1 percent of Alliant’s $3.2 billion in operating revenues for 2013.

“Obama’s Common Core Standards.” The ad says Perdue has “no problem with Obama’s Common Core standards,” a claim that is accurate as far as it goes, but misleading. For one thing, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is not Obama’s doing, nor is it even a federal mandate. It is a set of standards for what children from kindergarten through 12th grade should know in English and math. Although Obama has endorsed the standards, they were developed by states — led prominently by Perdue’s cousin Sonny when he was governor — and they have been adopted voluntarily by 44 of them.

As for David Perdue, he has fudged his position considerably in the face of a grassroots revolt by Republican activists objecting to the standards. Perdue told the Marietta Daily Journal that he agrees with the “original intent” of the standards, but has a problem with how they are being implemented. “It’s where it gets into the details, into the weeds of how it’s going to be administered, that’s where I have a problem with that,” he said. And in a YouTube video that the Kingston ad cites as its source, Perdue goes even further to distance himself, praising local control of schools and adding, “when they start trying to legislate and dictate curriculum and that sort of thing — and that includes how you measure up in the test — I have a major problem with that.” In a later radio interview, he said: “I want to clear the air, I think Common Core is overreaching right now and should be abandoned in its current form.”

Handel’s ‘Elitist’ Distortion

Another strong rival in the primary — former Secretary of State Karen Handel — is attacking Perdue as a rich elitist who insults the intelligence of Georgia voters. The claim is half true, at best.

Handel’s 30-second spot, titled “Feisty,” lumps Perdue in with Kingston and the two other incumbent House members who are running. She says, “Are you tired of millionaire elitists and career politicians telling us we’re not smart enough to fix the problems they created?” On screen appear video of Perdue and the words “Multimillionaire David Perdue criticizes Georgians without college degrees.”

Perdue is indeed a millionaire many times over. He’s worth somewhere between $27 million and $83 million, according to accounts of the personal financial disclosure forms required of Senate candidates. So that much is true. And whether he’s “elitist” or not is a matter of opinion. Perdue likes to point out that his parents were teachers and that he “helped his family grow watermelons” when growing up.

But the fact is that Perdue has never said Georgians are “not smart enough,” and the only Georgian without a degree whom Perdue has criticized is Handel herself. In remarks he made in January to a local GOP organization, Perdue argued that he is better equipped to deal with complicated national issues, and he knocked “the high school graduate in this race.” He said: “I mean, there’s a high school graduate in this race, OK? I’m sorry, but these issues are so much broader, so complex. … How can you bring value to a debate about the economy unless you have any understanding about the free enterprise system and how — what it takes to compete in the global economy?”

Video of that remark surfaced in April after Perdue became the frontrunner in the polls. (It’s the same video that now appears in Handel’s ad, without sound.)

Strictly speaking, Perdue wasn’t criticizing anyone without a degree who wasn’t also seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate. But from a political perspective, it was a rookie mistake to denigrate Handel’s lack of a degree. She left a broken home at age 17, finished high school and — as she puts it in this ad — “worked my way up.” Perdue was more fortunate, collecting an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering and a master’s degree in operations research, both from Georgia Tech.

A week after the video surfaced, Perdue apologized personally to Handel. But that hasn’t stopped her from incorrectly characterizing the remark as a blanket criticism of all Georgians who finished high school but not college.

Early voting has already begun in Georgia, and the primary election is May 20. Unless one of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote — which polls indicate isn’t likely — the top two finishers will face each other in a July 22 run-off to select the GOP nominee. The winner is likely to face Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. She’s facing only light opposition in her party’s primary. The general election contest will decide who will replace Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is not seeking reelection.

— Brooks Jackson