Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, repeatedly blasted Kingston, an 11-term congressman, as being part of the problem in Washington and failing to take action to cut spending, reduce the federal debt and turn back bad regulations.
“We’ve become less and less competitive on this congressman’s watch,” Perdue said. “We’ve lost our competitive edge on many parts of the world.”
Kingston responded by touting his commitment to his constituents in coastal Georgia, pointing to his repeated town hall meetings and arguing Perdue is the one who is “out of touch.”
“Your whole lifestyle is based in a different way,” Kingston told Perdue. “You live inside a gate inside a gated community with a gate on your house. I think being a public servant is being public and knowing how to serve.”
Sunday’s televised debate was the only one scheduled between the two Republicans ahead of the July 22 runoff. The winner will face Democrat Michelle Nunn in November in a race that has garnered national attention as Republicans seek control of the Senate.
Perdue, who made millions running Dollar General and other major corporations, has poured at least $3.1 million of his own money into race. That has helped him keep pace with Kingston, who began his campaign with $2.3 million in his congressional account and has dominated fundraising and endorsements.
Perdue said during the debate, which was hosted by the Atlanta Press Club, he was the son of schoolteachers who worked on a farm growing up. He now lives in a multimillion-dollar home on Georgia’s Sea Island.
“I’m not going to apologize for my success,” Perdue said. “I’m getting in here to make a difference and solve the mess you and your cohorts have made over the years.”
Perdue stuck close to his campaign message as the outsider in the race, seeking to capitalize on Congress’ low approval ratings. Polling has been limited in the race, and low voter turnout is expected.
“Folks, the congressman has been in Washington for 22 years,” Perdue said. “The decision in this race is very simple: If you like what is going on in Washington, then vote for my opponent.”
Kingston fired back, comparing Perdue to President Barack Obama.
“Ladies and gentlemen, President Obama ran as an outsider. Do you really know what you get with David Perdue?” Kingston said. “In the primary, my biggest margin of support came from the people I know best, the people in my district. They know I am a tested, consistent conservative who has not joined the club (in Washington).”
Kingston also sought to raise questions about Perdue’s appointment to the Georgia Ports Authority by his cousin, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. Kingston noted the two later launched a global trading company.
After Kingston touted his work on the Port of Savannah deepening project, Perdue noted the congressman had been working “17 years to deepen this port five feet. . In the real world you would have been fired for that and here you want a promotion.”
In one particularly pointed exchange, Kingston asked what Perdue was doing while the congressman was working to promote conservative values. Perdue responded curtly: “I was creating thousands of jobs in the real world.”
Later Kingston took a swipe at Perdue by referencing the 7,600 people who lost their jobs at Pillowtex Corp., a North Carolina-based textile company that shut down four months after Perdue left as CEO. The company had just emerged from bankruptcy when Perdue was hired in 2002 but the financial situation worsened after issues with an unfunded pension liability surfaced.
Also on the ballot in November is Libertarian Amanda Swafford, a former councilwoman from Flowery Branch, Georgia.