CARTERSVILLE, Ga. — In a year when Republicans have been able to harness economic anxiety to their distinct advantage, the Senate candidacy of the Republican David Perdue in Georgia has shown that voter dread can cut both ways.
A self-proclaimed Mr. Fix-It from the private sector, Mr. Perdue has found that his credentials as a senior executive at Reebok, Sara Lee, Haggar Clothing, Pillowtex and Dollar General have worked against him in the closing days of his race against Michelle Nunn, a Democrat.
Ms. Nunn has been able to point to the outsourcing of jobs on Mr. Perdue’s watch, in much the same way that President Obama did against Mitt Romney in 2012, and the race has emerged as one of the nation’s closest, and one of few where Democrats have an opportunity to pick up a seat.
Diane Barnette, who spent 26 years working at the Sara Lee apparel plant here, had never heard Mr. Perdue’s name when he was in charge of building the company’s presence in Asia. But she believes she saw his handiwork.
Michelle Nunn is a another Senate candidate in Georgia. The state has the highest unemployment rate in the country.
She worked her way up from sewing machine operator to plant manager, watching as jobs moved overseas and until the plant finally closed in 1995. Her introduction to Mr. Perdue came more recently, in a campaign advertisement attacking him as the man responsible for her career’s demise. She would never vote for him, said Ms. Barnette, 69, who finished her working days at a car dealership earning a fraction of her previous salary. But she does not hold him personally responsible.
“They were just caught up in the hurry of everybody going offshore, including him, and they weren’t thinking about the people getting hurt,” she said.
Now it is Mr. Perdue who may be feeling the pain.
On Monday, campaigning at the hip Swheat Market and Organic Grocery on Cartersville’s main drag, just around the corner from the deteriorating Spring City Technology Park that was once Sara Lee’s plant, he tried to free himself from the plant’s shadow. “One man does not decimate an entire industry,” he said.
The Sara Lee apparel plant in Cartersville, Ga., closed in 1995 and is now the site of a deteriorating technology park.
“We’ve had several industries — apparel, textile, footwear, electronics, even furniture — over the last 30, 40 years decimated by policies that put our manufacturers at a disadvantage relative to the rest of the world,” he said. “She’s trying to put that back on me individually, and that’s a distraction away from the very policies that this administration is perpetrating right now.”
When Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, announced his retirement last year, few thought his Georgia seat would be one of the most competitive. National Republican Party officials quietly pulled for Mr. Perdue to beat out the firebrand Tea Party House members vying for the Republican nomination.
Democratic officials looked at the strong-jawed executive with the soft Georgia accent and saw a political outsider who could become a senator from central casting. He has “presidential timber,” one Democratic strategist said.
In conservative Georgia, the attacks may have dented his appeal, but he maintains strong support, even among those directly targeted by Ms. Nunn’s barrage of hits on his business years. Tom Collins, a business owner, occupies the space once filled by Sara Lee, employing around a half-dozen people making custom windows and doors where Sara Lee had employed 230.
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“My aunt worked here. A lot of people did,” Mr. Collins said. “There were mills all up and down. They had their own post office and their own grocery store, everything.”
But he is not holding the wreckage against Mr. Perdue.
“Shoot no, I voted for him already,” he said, laughing. Georgia’s early voting has already begun.
But Mr. Perdue’s road to Washington has been bumpy, just as Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, has struggled in his re-election campaign. Georgia has the highest unemployment rate in the country, an unsettling position for a Sun Belt state accustomed to good fortune. It has regained 87 percent of the jobs lost in the Great Recession, according to the Labor Department’s survey of nonfarm payrolls. But according to its broader household survey, which also measures self-employment and the farm sector, it has regained only 42 percent, said Jeff Humphreys, director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.
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The recession hit Georgia unusually hard. Its sprawl, especially around Atlanta, had built an economy heavily dependent on home building and real estate. But its manufacturing sector was also skewed toward building materials like wood products, flooring and carpeting. And growth depended on in-migration of plants, regional offices and corporate headquarters from all over the country.
All of that was wiped out by the financial crisis, which also shut more banks in Georgia than anywhere else, destroying relationship-based lending and hurting small business. Home prices fell 28 percent, wiping out the equity used for lending collateral, Mr. Humphreys said.
The resulting dislocation and uncertainty have hollowed out the middle, creating political openings for both Mr. Perdue and Ms. Nunn. North on Interstate 75, Dalton, the “carpet capital of the world,” has the highest municipal unemployment rate in the state, 10.7 percent.
“There’s a lot of money in Dalton,” said Melodie Church, an interior designer getting her hair done at Tease Salon in town. She was interrupted by Tera Clelland, who was cutting her hair.
“But there’s no middle class,” Ms. Clelland said.
Ms. Church agreed. “If the carpet business fell away, this would be a ghost town.”
Mr. Perdue blames overregulation, high taxes and the health care changes of the “Obama-Nunn economy.”
Ms. Nunn blames Mr. Perdue. One advertisement, reminiscent of spots in 2012 attacking Mr. Romney’s business experience, features workers at North Carolina’s Pillowtex lamenting their treatment under Mr. Perdue. The Nunn campaign plans to release a longer version this week.
Attacks have used Mr. Perdue’s own words, captured in a 2005 deposition first reported by Politico in which he boasted, “Yeah, I spent most of my career” outsourcing work. That same deposition featured Mr. Perdue ardently defending a $700,000 “plus up” in his Pillowtex salary to pay the taxes on his signing bonus and a $100,000 moving allowance, although he never moved to North Carolina.
“I’m not going to get into the details of my contract negotiations,” Mr. Perdue said Sunday night after a debate in Atlanta.
At that debate, Ms. Nunn ripped into Mr. Perdue over a pay-discrimination lawsuit filed by women at Dollar General while he was chief executive there.
“That complaint was settled five years after I left,” he shot back. “She knows that. It was less than 2,000 people. We had upward of 70,000 employees in that company.”
Ms. Nunn retorted: “Two thousand women — that actually seems like quite a lot to me.”
To Mr. Perdue, all of these attacks are “sleights of hand.” He said that he had a right to protect contractual perks already paid out by Pillowtex from unsecured creditors trying to take them back and that he had tried to save Pillowtex and now was being pilloried for it. And, he said, he had nothing to do with the three Sara Lee plants closed in Cartersville, Milledgeville and Wrightsville, Ga. He was living in Hong Kong at the time, expanding Sara Lee operations in Asia.
“I was in another hemisphere doing something totally independent of that, and they know it,” he said of the Nunn campaign.
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