GOP Senate candidates avoid Sen. Saxby Chambliss' fiscal path in debate

The leading candidates to succeed Sen. Chambliss run away from his fiscal record

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss

By Daniel Milloy

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA (MCT) — The leading Republican contenders seeking to inherit U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat respond with emotions from discomfort to downright hostility when it comes to Chambliss’ fiscal legacy.

Taxes were a big topic from the campaign trail to a debate Saturday night put on by Channel 2 Action News, which aired at 11 a.m. Sunday, the final get-together before Tuesday’s primary election. With varying shades of forcefulness, the GOP leaders advocated a different path than the retiring incumbent, whose “Gang of Six” proposal to help close yawning deficits involved spending cuts, changes to entitlement programs and eliminating some tax deductions.

Businessman David Perdue’s opponents accused him of considering tax increases because he told the Macon Telegraph editorial board that the need for more revenue is a “reality.” But Perdue said he was only advocating increased tax revenue through economic growth — not tax hikes.

He reiterated that stance Saturday, saying “I don’t agree with any tax increase as part of the solution.”

But Perdue did affirm support for the Marketplace Fairness Act, a bill that would allow states and localities to collect taxes from online retailers that do not have a brick-and-mortar presence in their jurisdictions. It has been branded a tax increase by some conservative groups — even though consumers technically are already supposed to pay the taxes. The bill has the support of Chambliss and his fellow Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Perdue compared the sales tax collection to the Fair Tax, which scraps the Internal Revenue Service in exchange for a national sales tax, a plan most of the GOP candidates support.

But Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah leapt to criticize Perdue and brand the Marketplace Fairness Act a tax hike.

When all the candidates were asked directly whether Chambliss’ fiscal negotiations with Democrats were the right path, only Atlanta attorney Art Gardner — a long-shot candidate campaigning as the more moderate choice — endorsed the approach.

“Yes, Saxby is on the right track,” Gardner said.

Rep. Paul Broun of Athens countered, “He’s on the wrong track.”

Kingston said, “We have a spending problem. We do not need to raise taxes.”

Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta yielded a bit of ground, saying he would be in favor of eliminating some tax loopholes if they are “a crony capitalism special interest issue.”

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel said “I don’t think this race is about Sen. Chambliss. This race is about moving forward.” But she made clear that she does not endorse any tax increases, and went after Perdue for it.

Perdue pointed out that Handel, too, told the Telegraph editorial board that she wants increased revenue from economic growth. Handel shot back that she was clearer in her answer, and she did not laugh like Perdue did.

“Raising taxes is no laughing matter,” Handel said.

Her jabs, like most of the others, were at Perdue, who leads in the Republican primary polls. The debate was the last time the seven Republican contenders will be on stage together, after a marathon series of get-togethers stretching back to January.

Stone Mountain minister and MARTA engineer Derrick Grayson rounded out the septet of contenders, and he bristled at how the spotlight has fallen on the better-known candidates.

“Stop drinking the lies of corporate-backed media and start researching these candidates for yourself,” Grayson said.

Perdue and Kingston have sparred in TV ads and traded blows Saturday night from adjacent podiums. Kingston called out Perdue because he was on the board of a utility company that accepted stimulus money. Perdue shot back that Kingston — after voting against the 2009 stimulus law — requested money from it for Georgia.

Kingston hit Perdue for not voting in a couple of Republican primaries since moving back to Georgia in 2009 and donating money to a Democrat in Massachusetts. Perdue hit Kingston for voting for congressionally directed earmark spending projects and increases in the federal borrowing limit.