The seven Republican candidates vying this year for the state’s U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Saxby Chambliss have more than a few things in common.
But during a debate Saturday night at Brenau University’s Pearce Auditorium attended by a few hundred residents and political observers, each candidate took pains to highlight the nuances that separate them from the others on the bread-and-butter issues that energize GOP voters.
Hosted by the Georgia Republican Party, the third debate in a series of seven set the stage for the May 20 primary that pits several Washington and state political veterans against a few upstarts looking to upend the dynamic that has seen Congress’ approval ratings plummet.
The candidates’ opening statements revealed just how important it’s becoming for them to differentiate their campaigns from the crowded field as the primary approaches.
Karen Handel recounted her experience serving as Georgia’s secretary of state, explaining that she has the necessary chops and experience to change Washington while remaining distant from the partisanship that has crippled the nation’s capital.
“Results matter and records count,” she said repeatedly.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, answering to charges of being a Washington insider, claimed his bona fides as a homespun Georgia boy taught the lessons of fiscal and personal responsibility, trademarks phrases sure to get Republican voters enthused.
“I’m here because the American dream is in peril,” he said. “I work hard to fight bureaucratic overreach.”
District 10 U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens made no apologies for his time spent in Washington, often shouting into the microphone about his determination to fight Democrats at every level, on every issue.
“It’s definitely my strict constitutionalist views about the proper role of the federal government” that separate him from the other candidates, he said.
District 11 Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta laid out his case in no uncertain terms, hoping to ride the wave of anti-Washington populism coursing through much of the GOP electorate.
“I am a career physician,” he said. “I am not a career politician.”
Businessman David Perdue also claimed the mantle of a political outsider while delineating his campaign from the others in one remark.
“If we want different results from Washington, we need to send a different kind of person to Washington,” he said.
Derrick Grayson, a minister from Atlanta, used his booming voice and rhetorical cache to woo the audience in his favor.
The pre-eminent underdog in the race, Grayson attacked the political elites in the campaign for selling out the country.
“I’m not going to talk about me because I’m really not that important,” he said. “What is important is our constitution, our liberties and our freedoms.”
Art Gardner is in many ways the truest of outsiders in the field. A patent attorney, Gardner positioned himself as the clear alternative to a group of candidates that have name-brand recognition.
“I’m going to tell you things that the other candidates are not going to say,” he said. “I’m the only candidate on this stage who has the courage to say that our party needs to go in a new direction.”
After introductions concluded, the candidates each responded to a few questions, some of which are likely to rear their heads time and again as the campaign proceeds.
It’s no secret that Republicans of every stripe are out to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which they like to criticize with furor as Obamacare. And try as the moderator and panelist of questioners did, they could not keep the subject of a perceived physicians shortage from returning over and over to the president’s health care law. The candidates even laughed when it was mentioned that a Republican could not win the Senate seat without opposing the law.
Kingston and Handel said any issue related to health care could not be addressed without mentioning the Affordable Care Act. “You’ve got to get rid of Obamacare,” Kingston said.
Grayson talked about the need to reform the medical malpractice system, but acknowledged that the bandwagon of hate for the health care law could not be overlooked.
Broun, meanwhile, said he had the answer to the problem that vexes Republicans. He said he wanted to introduce the Patient Option Act in the U.S. House of Representatives as a way to “rip (Obamacare) out by the roots.”
For their parts, however, Gardner took time to criticize the insurance industry, whose role he would like to reduce, and Gingrey said he wanted to place more emphasis and science and medical training to ensure doctors are in vast supply.
Once the domain of conservatives, foreign policy issues appear to have taken a backseat to other preoccupations, like health care, in recent years. Moreover, the once hawkish rhetoric of conservatives has been replaced by a more cautious approach.
“We cannot continue to be the world’s policeman,” Broun said, while acknowledging his own service as a Navy reservist.
Handel linked the nation’s foreign policy with Washington’s finances.
“If we are bankrupt, we won’t be in a position to protect” the nation, she said.
Perdue piggybacked on this theme, which he has made a centerpiece of his campaign.
“The greatest threat to national security is our debt,” he said.
Gingrey said he shared the sentiments of other candidates about the need for the United States not to get involved in every conflict zone in the world, but also expressed his belief that sometimes war is necessary. He pointed at the revolution currently taking place in Ukraine as an example of where America’s military might need to get involved in order to defeat Russian interests.
Grayson, meanwhile, took a harder line on foreign policy, criticizing the Patriot Act and the nation’s intervention in Libya.
Whatever differences the candidates expressed on other issues, they were undeniably united when it came time to discuss illegal immigration policies.
“First and foremost, no more amnesties,” Handel said, which drew a round of applause from attendees.
Broun cast the next line that also drew applause from the crowd and agreement from the candidates.
“Let’s secure the border and nothing else matters until we do,” he said.
Perdue said he held the executive branch responsible for not enforcing the immigration laws currently on the books.
Kingston, while joking about offense that politicians and voters on the left might take, said his foreign policy was defined as “peace through strength.”
Gardner, as if trying to quell some of the boilerplate rhetoric being tossed about, said he wanted to take a practical approach to the issue, which includes registering illegal immigrants and requiring their service in the military.
At the end of the debate, the candidates rehashed their appeals to voters, challenging them to see beyond the similarities. But despite all the attempts and maneuvering to isolate their campaign from the others, the field came together once more, with each candidate expressing opposition to a proposed minimum wage hike and supporting congressional attempts to undue Common Core education standards.