A fundraising email from Karen Handel’s Republican campaign for U.S. Senate arrived this week, describing GOP frontrunner David Perdue, the richest candidate in the race and former head of Dollar General, as “an out-of-touch, multi-millionaire CEO who lives in a gated oceanfront community.”
It was a retaliatory blow.
A first-time candidate, Perdue had made the mistake, in far-away January, of noting that our former secretary of state’s formal education had ended with a high school diploma – a matter that was much discussed during Handel’s unsuccessful run for governor in 2010.
“I mean, there’s a high school graduate in this race, OK? I’m sorry, but these issues are so much broader, so complex,” Perdue had said during a discussion of global economics.
A video of his remarks surfaced last week. The Handel campaign wasn’t the source of the leak, but has taken full advantage of the misstep.
Eighteen months ago, Republicans howled when Democrats tagged Mitt Romney as an unsavory elitist for asserting – in the mother of all leaked videos — that 47 percent of Americans were too dependent on government to pick up a GOP ballot. We in Georgia are now experiencing the sequel to that debate, ironically conducted within the confines of the Republican race for U.S. Senate.
At an impromptu press conference in south Fulton County, the irrepressible Sarah Palin, with Handel at her side, turned up her blue collar. “There are a lot of good, hard-working Americans who have more common sense in their pinky finger than a lot of those Ivy League pieces of paper up on a wall that represent some elitism,” said the Chief Momma Grizzly, possibly alluding to Perdue’s master’s degree from Georgia Tech. “Not all of the time does a college degree matter.”
But it was the Monday email from the Handel campaign, sent over the signature of former banker and Georgia GOP chair Sue Everhart, that best captured the tone of the debate.
“I’d rather have a U.S. Senator who pulled herself up by the bootstraps, than one with advanced degrees who thinks he’s better than the majority of Georgians,” Everhart wrote. The Handel campaign now promises a set of bootstraps for every $10 donation. Then there's this radio ad that will air Thursday:
A riot of subtext churns beneath this brouhaha. Handel is the only woman in the GOP field – who fled a dysfunctional family at age 17. One also catches a whiff of gunpowder from the tea party vs. establishment battle that’s raging nationally among Republicans.
But it is the language of class warfare that stands out. And Handel isn’t the only one using it against Perdue. At last month’s GOP Senate debate in Savannah, hometown candidate and congressman Jack Kingston told the crowd that “no gate separates your house from my house” – another reference to Perdue’s house on Sea Island.
Eric Tanenblatt, a senior managing director at McKenna Long & Aldridge in Atlanta, was Mitt Romney’s chief operative when the “47 percent” video wreaked its havoc on the Republican’s presidential campaign. Tanenblatt doesn’t think that painting Perdue as a member of a silver-spoon elite will ultimately work.
“[Perdue] grew up in middle Georgia. I think both of his parents are teachers. He’s self-made. And in the party of opportunity, we should be celebrating success stories like that, and celebrating the fact that he’s willing to give back,” Tanenblatt said. “That’s what I said about Mitt Romney. Why should we be vilifying someone who’s been successful?”
There’s another reason why a blue-collar assault on Perdue might fall short – at least from Handel’s perspective. While only 36 percent of Georgians hold a two-year or four-year college degree, it is a pool that skews racially toward whites – and thus, more than likely, Republicans.
Fifty-eight percent of whites over the age of 25 in Georgia have at least some college or an associate’s degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And according to a recent national Gallup survey, 93 percent of those with some college view a bachelor’s degree as “somewhat” or “very” important.
We may not want to hear a candidate tell us that he or she is our better, but we tend to be aspirational when it comes to picking who we vote for. Sarah Palin is right – a college degree doesn’t matter all of the time. But in politics, at the Washington level, it matters most of the time.
According to the Congressional Research Service, within the current Congress, 21 of 435 members of the U.S. House (including Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County) have no educational degree beyond a high school diploma. But only one of 100 senators lacks a college education — Mark Begich, a Democrat from Palin’s Alaska.
Up in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been widely talked about as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. In his senior year, Walker walked out of Marquette University to take a job with the American Red Cross.
At the time, Walker’s decision was no doubt of the bootstrap variety. It hasn’t seemed to hurt him. But he has decided not to stand pat. Over the weekend, the Wisconsin governor announced that, two decades later, he would be going back to school.