Can a Democrat Win in Georgia?

A victory might lock up control of the Senate for Democrats, but Republicans haven’t lost a major race there in over a decade.

Points of Light Foundation CEO Michelle Nunn makes brief remarks during the presentation of the 5,000th "Points of Light" Foundation award with President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on July 15, 2013. 
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
July 22, 2014, 6:53 p.m.

Michelle Nunn’s cam­paign has a lot go­ing for it. She raises a lot of money, shares a last name with her ex-sen­at­or fath­er, and be­ne­fits from an ugly and es­pe­cially long primary fight among Re­pub­lic­ans. But, ul­ti­mately, wheth­er she can win Geor­gia’s open-seat Sen­ate race will de­pend on wheth­er a Demo­crat—dur­ing a midterm elec­tion where the party is ex­pec­ted to suf­fer across-the-board losses—can break through in a South­ern state where Re­pub­lic­ans have en­joyed al­most un­in­ter­rup­ted suc­cess for more than a dec­ade.

The GOP ex­pects a com­pet­it­ive race, a stumble from their nom­in­ee could eas­ily change the con­test’s tra­ject­ory, and—for now—some polls show Nunn hold­ing an early lead. But the dual head­winds of the Re­pub­lic­an-lean and an un­fa­vor­able midterm polit­ic­al cli­mate ex­plains why for all the op­tim­ism about Nunn’s abil­ity as a can­did­ate, she enters the gen­er­al-elec­tion race to re­place the re­tir­ing Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss as a firm un­der­dog.

Nunn learned Tues­day that she’ll face Dav­id Per­due, the wealthy former CEO of Ree­bok, after he won the GOP’s two-month-long run­off race over Rep. Jack King­ston.

If she goes on to lose in Novem­ber, most will trace her de­feat to the first phase of the GOP primary, held in late May. The cam­paigns for both Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gin­grey ended that day, and both were con­sidered by far Nunn’s best pos­sible match­up be­cause of each’s pen­chant for con­tro­versy. While Per­due is far from per­fect, he won’t eas­ily be tagged as an ex­trem­ist.

Most GOP strategists re­garded Per­due and King­ston as roughly equal in strength as gen­er­al-elec­tion can­did­ates, and it was evid­ent dur­ing the run­off that they wer­en’t con­cerned about the up­com­ing elec­tion. Des­pite spend­ing mil­lions across the Sen­ate map, no mar­quee GOP out­side group like Amer­ic­an Cross­roads or the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce launched a ma­jor tele­vi­sion-ad cam­paign against Nunn. (One group, End­ing Spend­ing Ac­tion Fund, star­ted run­ning ads against her Sunday.)

Nunn’s strengths as a can­did­ate are many. Only two oth­er Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate con­tenders, Kay Hagan in North Car­o­lina and Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes in Ken­tucky, raised more than the $3.45 mil­lion Nunn col­lec­ted in the second fun­drais­ing quarter. Her fath­er, Sam Nunn, served in the Sen­ate for 24 years as a mod­er­ate Demo­crat—a repu­ta­tion she is eagerly em­bra­cing for her­self as a former lead­er of the char­ity or­gan­iz­a­tion Points of Light. And while maybe not a nat­ur­al on the cam­paign trail, she’s had nearly a year of prac­tice hon­ing her skills.

In ef­fect, the drawn-out squabble among Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates for their party’s nom­in­a­tion built a long run­way for Nunn’s cam­paign to take off, al­low­ing her to raise money and sharpen her rhet­or­ic while mostly avoid­ing at­tacks and the spot­light.

“As the Re­pub­lic­ans have wasted time and re­sources bat­tling it out, Michelle Nunn has built sig­ni­fic­ant fin­an­cial and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al ad­vant­ages that put her in the driver’s seat head­ing in­to the gen­er­al,” said Justin Barasky, press sec­ret­ary for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, in a memo pub­lished be­fore Tues­day’s run­off.

And in the con­text of the broad­er battle for the Sen­ate, a vic­tory in Geor­gia would simply count as an un­ex­pec­ted bo­nus for Demo­crats. Win there, and Re­pub­lic­ans would sud­denly have to win sev­en seats to cap­ture the ma­jor­ity, a po­ten­tially cru­cial dif­fer­ence when most ana­lysts con­sider a GOP takeover something close to an even bet for now. Geor­gia is one of two states Demo­crats have tar­geted this year as pos­sible pickup op­por­tun­it­ies. (Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s Ken­tucky seat is the oth­er.)

But a Geor­gia Demo­crat hasn’t won a Sen­ate or gubernat­ori­al race since former Sen. Zell Miller in 2000. And while Pres­id­ent Obama’s cam­paign once con­tem­plated com­pet­ing for the state in 2012 on the back of its chan­ging demo­graph­ics, he lost there in both of his pres­id­en­tial ef­forts. While the state has a siz­able pro­por­tion of minor­ity voters, it’s white elect­or­ate leans heav­ily to­ward the GOP.

And now the pres­id­ent him­self fig­ures to be a ma­jor drag on Nunn’s cam­paign. A poll com­mis­sioned by Demo­cracy Corps/Wo­men’s Voices Wo­men Vote Ac­tion Fund—con­duc­ted by a Demo­crat­ic polling firm—found Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing in 12 Sen­ate battle­grounds (in­clud­ing Geor­gia) stand­ing at just 37 per­cent.

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