U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff lobbed the same criticisms at each other Monday that Georgia TV viewers have grown used to from their relentless attack ads.
During an hourlong debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club, Perdue labeled Ossoff as a “radical socialist” pushing an agenda that includes de-funding the police and a government takeover of health care.
Ossoff accused Perdue of downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic while doing nothing to respond to the demands of millions of peacefully protesting Americans for criminal justice reform.
Perdue, seeking a second six-year term in the Senate after a career as a corporate executive, and Ossoff, an investigative journalist running for statewide office for the first time, have been locked in a dead heat for months, according to numerous polls.
With Democrats needing to capture just three or four seats to take control of the Senate, depending on the outcome of the presidential election, the Perdue-Ossoff contest is one of a handful of Senate races that could sway the outcome.
On Monday, the two took turns charging the other with corruption.
Ossoff accused Perdue of selling special access to campaign donors, including at lavish retreats at his home in coastal Georgia.
“He works for his donors, not ‘We the People,’ ” Ossoff said.
Perdue said Ossoff has received financial backing from the Chinese government and was endorsed by the Communist Party of the USA, the latter charge later declared false by an Associated Press fact check.
“One of his largest clients is Al Jazeera, a mouthpiece for terrorism,” Perdue said.
While denying those charges, Ossoff countered that Perdue supports a lawsuit filed by the Trump administration seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
At the same time, Ossoff said, Perdue and his Senate Republican colleagues are working to ram through a U.S. Supreme Court nominee who would overturn the ACA and thereby deny Georgians health coverage for pre-existing conditions. Those same Republicans refused to consider then-President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick in 2016, arguing Congress shouldn’t act on a court nominee during an election year.
“[Perdue] has thrown those so-called principles aside,” Ossoff said.
Perdue said the political landscape has changed since 2016, when the Senate’s Republican majority blocked a Democratic president’s pick for the Supreme Court.
Now, Perdue said, Ossoff wants to join a Senate Democratic caucus that plans to offset the expected confirmation of conservative court nominee Amy Coney Barrett by adding more seats to the court.
“[Ossoff] will be nothing but a rubber stamp when [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer wants to pack the court,” Perdue said.
Ossoff said he wants to champion criminal-justice reform in the Senate, a demand made during street protests following the deaths of several Black Americans this year at the hands of white police officers. He specifically cited the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, near Brunswick and the subsequent arrest of three white men.
“We have to recognize that racial profiling and police brutality are systemic,” Ossoff said.
Perdue defended the Trump administration’s record on the issue, including congressional passage of criminal justice reform legislation in December 2018.
“The  crime bill was written by Joe Biden, and it locked up more Black men than any law in the last 25 years,” Perdue said.
On COVID-19, Ossoff charged Perdue with echoing President Donald Trump’s response early on in the pandemic.
“You assured us the risk was low,” Ossoff said to Perdue. “You told us this disease was no more deadly than the flu.”
Perdue said both Trump and Congress responded quickly to the economic impact of coronavirus by approving a relief package that brought $47 million to Georgia and created 1½ million jobs.
“We’re doing everything we can to break through the regulations to bring a vaccine quicker,” Perdue said.
Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel criticized the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided loans to small businesses affected by the pandemic, as an overreach of the federal government’s powers under the U.S. Constitution.
Hazel also took Gov. Brian Kemp to task for the statewide stay-at-home order he handed down during the pandemic’s early stages to discourage the spread of the virus.
“Governor Kemp does not have the right to block us from assembling,” Hazel said. “Good ideas don’t require force. … Evaluate the risks on your own and go out and do what you need to do.”