Without a Republican Screwup, Does Michelle Nunn Stand a Chance?

The Democrats’ plan to win Georgia’s Senate seat might have died with Tuesday night’s GOP primary result.

National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
May 20, 2014, 7:22 p.m.

Michelle Nunn’s best chance at vic­tory al­ways lay in Geor­gia’s Re­pub­lic­an primary. If con­tro­versy-court­ing Reps. Paul Broun or Phil Gin­grey won the GOP’s nom­in­a­tion for Sen­ate, of­fi­cials in both parties thought Nunn would have be­gun the gen­er­al elec­tion as a sure­fire front-run­ner.

The Peach State Demo­crat now knows it’s not go­ing to be that easy.

On Tues­day, both men un­ce­re­mo­ni­ously crashed out of the GOP primary, fall­ing well short of busi­ness­man Dav­id Per­due and Rep. Jack King­ston. The top two fin­ish­ers now face a one-on-one battle in a Ju­ly 22 run­off for the right to move on to the gen­er­al elec­tion.

But no mat­ter which Re­pub­lic­an wins, the most im­port­ant part for the gen­er­al elec­tion is over: The GOP isn’t go­ing to nom­in­ate an­oth­er Todd Akin or Christine O’Don­nell — the type of can­did­ate likely to com­mit an elec­tion-los­ing gaffe that would hand a Sen­ate seat to the Demo­crats. And that leaves Nunn, who won her own largely un­con­tested primary Tues­day, to prove that the vi­ab­il­ity of her cam­paign was nev­er de­pend­ent on Re­pub­lic­ans screw­ing up an­oth­er race.

Nunn will need to prove that the vi­ab­il­ity of her cam­paign was nev­er de­pend­ent on Re­pub­lic­ans screw­ing up an­oth­er race.

It’s pos­sible she will suc­ceed: Demo­crats con­sider her one of the party’s best re­cruits of 2014, and even Re­pub­lic­ans openly ac­know­ledge that Nunn has run an ex­cel­lent cam­paign so far. The ques­tion now is wheth­er her cent­rist vis­age and fam­ous last name — she’s the daugh­ter of pop­u­lar former Demo­crat­ic Sen. Sam Nunn — are enough to win over a largely red-state elect­or­ate in an un­deni­ably tough year for Demo­crats.

“I just think the demo­graph­ics of this state fa­vor the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee and make it an up­hill battle, but I wouldn’t say it’s a for­gone con­clu­sion,” said Eric Tan­en­blatt, an At­lanta-based Re­pub­lic­an power broker.

Few Demo­crats would ar­gue that Gin­grey and Broun wer­en’t Nunn’s ideal op­pon­ents, but they’re adam­ant she still has a shot at vic­tory in Novem­ber. She’ll be­ne­fit from a two-month peri­od when Per­due and King­ston will fight each oth­er, rather than her, un­til the run­off elec­tion. That battle, Demo­crats hope, will force the even­tu­al GOP nom­in­ee to ad­opt an even more con­ser­vat­ive agenda un­pal­at­able to a gen­er­al-elec­tion elect­or­ate.

“The real­ity is, no mat­ter who makes it past today, you’re go­ing to have a his­tor­ic two-month run­off where the top two vote-get­ters are go­ing to be run­ning fur­ther and fur­ther to the right in a very low-turnout race,” said Tim Al­borg, a Geor­gia-based Demo­crat­ic strategist.

While the run­off risk has some Re­pub­lic­ans openly en­cour­aging GOP-aligned out­side groups — like Amer­ic­an Cross­roads or the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce — to step in and start tee­ing off on Nunn now, that looks un­likely. “We’re more fo­cused on the gen­er­al elec­tion,” said a source in­side one of the out­side groups.

And for some Re­pub­lic­ans, that de­cision to stay out the race re­flects a con­fid­ence that Nunn’s chances died with Broun’s and Gin­grey’s can­did­a­cies. Why waste valu­able re­sources on a race already tilt­ing heav­ily in the GOP’s dir­ec­tion?

Demo­crats in Wash­ing­ton have con­sidered Geor­gia, along with Ken­tucky, their best op­por­tun­ity to pick up a Re­pub­lic­an-held seat in this year’s midterm elec­tion (the seat is held by re­tir­ing Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss). That’s partly a func­tion of the party’s dearth of op­tions to play of­fense this cycle.

From June through April, Nunn raised a prodi­gious $6.3 mil­lion — more than any­thing her GOP coun­ter­parts com­piled dur­ing the primary. And she’s already put the money to­ward bran­dish­ing her im­age as a cent­rist. Her first ads have nary a men­tion of Pres­id­ent Obama but they do men­tion a Bush — George H.W. Bush, with whom she worked as CEO of the Points of Light Char­ity.

The ads have done some good: An NBC News/Mar­ist poll from earli­er this month found Nunn nar­rowly trail­ing Per­due by 4 points, 45 per­cent to 41 per­cent while in a dead heat with King­ston, at 43 per­cent each.

Even if Nunn is seen as hav­ing an equal chance against Per­due, King­ston, or Han­del, she’d run a very dif­fer­ent cam­paign against each one. The play against Per­due is straight­for­ward: His mock­ery of the idea that a high-school gradu­ate could be a U.S. sen­at­or, a ma­jor is­sue in the GOP primary, opens him to ac­cus­a­tions that he’s an elit­ist out of touch with the pub­lic. King­ston, an 11-term con­gress­man, is vul­ner­able against the charge that he’s a con­sum­mate Wash­ing­ton in­sider. 

Still, there are already signs, run­off or not, that Nunn’s free run is near­ing an end. In a bat­tery of in­ter­views, she’s de­clined to say wheth­er she would have voted for Obama­care, a po­s­i­tion that’s likely to be­come un­ten­able between now and Elec­tion Day.

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