HIAWASSEE, Ga. — Georgia Democrats believe they're close to ending more than a decade of losses — and with it, potentially save Senate control for their party.
Democrat Michelle Nunn has jumped into a narrow lead in recent polling of the state’s open Senate race, a slight edge driven as much by questions about Republican David Perdue’s business career as the former charity executive’s centrist appeal.
Even local Democrats can’t quite believe their luck.
“Wow, really?” one astonished Democrat blurted out, when Nunn told a few dozen local party activists at the BumbleBee's Cafe in Blue Ridge Thursday morning that she’s led in three straight public polls. By that afternoon, a Nunn staffer had to correct her during a speech — it was up to four.
“When Michelle announced, y’all know Georgia has been voting red, deep red for the last two or three elections, and I didn’t think she had a real chance, and I think a lot of y’all felt the same way,” Towns County Commissioner Bill Kendall (D) said while introducing Nunn on the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in Hiawassee that afternoon. “But there’s a feeling in this fall air that Michelle has the momentum.”
Perdue, a businessman who bills himself a specialist at turning around struggling companies, has now struggled himself to overcome his recently revealed comments from a 2005 deposition that he’d spent “most of my career” outsourcing. In ads and in media, he’s been hammered with examples of outsourced or lost jobs at companies he ran.
But the big question isn’t just whether Nunn can edge him out in November — it’s whether she can top 50 percent on Election Day, a taller task given the third-party candidates on the ballot.
To do that, she’ll have to strike a delicate balance between keeping up her appeal to independents while turning out the state’s fast-growing African-American population. Democrats haven’t won a campaign for governor or senator in Georgia since 2000, though many have reached runoffs.
“It was difficult to win a runoff in Georgia for a Democrat. It’s even worse now because the runoff period has become so extended,” former Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox (D) told The Hill, saying there was “no question” that Nunn has a better shot winning on Nov. 4 than she would on Jan. 6.
National strategists are taking notice of Nunn’s momentum. Both parties have begun spending in earnest in the Peach State in recent weeks, dumping millions into the race.
National Republican figures are pouring into the state to try to help Perdue hold on. He launched a statewide bus tour on Thursday and is set to campaign with Sens. Rand PaulRand PaulWe can put America first by preventing public health disasters Conservative activists want action from Trump McConnell: 'Big challenge' to pass ObamaCare repeal in Senate MORE (R-Ky.) and Ted CruzTed CruzWeek ahead in tech: Trump's antitrust pick heads before Senate Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's FDA pick Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE (R-Texas) this weekend, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney (R) dropping in next week.
Nunn, who founded the Hands on Atlanta charity and later merged it with former President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, spent Thursday with her father, former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), rallying pockets of Democrats in heavily Republican North Georgia.
At each stop, she painted herself as a centrist deal-maker, touting her work with Republicans like Bush and promising to be like her bipartisan father while blasting Perdue as a partisan obstructionist.
“David Perdue, my opponent … he’s traveling around Georgia with Ted Cruz. Y’all might remember he’s the architect of our shutting down the government,” she said in Hiawassee. “It’s just a perfect example of the dysfunction in Washington, and we don’t need any more of that. What we need is for people to come together, to sit around tables like this and to get things done.”
She’s taking the same tone on TV. Her latest ad features the senior Nunn saying his “priority as senator was to get things done for Georgia by working with both parties,” and he’s “seen time and again how Michelle was able to work with anyone.” Another spot pushes back against recent Perdue attacks tying her to President Obama by pointing out that she was photographed with Obama, when she attended an event honoring former President George H.W. Bush (R), her old boss.
While Nunn tied Perdue to Cruz, Perdue and Republicans have been relentlessly tying her to Obama.
They got some help on Thursday from the president, when Obama told an Atlanta hip-hop radio station, “if Michelle Nunn wins, that means that Democrats keep control of the Senate, and that means that we can keep on doing some good work.”
Republicans immediately pounced on the comments.
"President Obama made it crystal clear that a vote for Michelle Nunn is a vote to further his failed policies in Washington. While Michelle Nunn has been running from Obama since day one, she will absolutely continue to implement his liberal agenda by expanding ObamaCare, granting amnesty for illegal immigrants and raising taxes,” said Perdue spokeswoman Megan Whittemore.
Nunn’s campaign scoffed at attempts to tie them together.
“She’s probably spent maybe 45 minutes with President Obama in her life,” said Gordon Giffin, a former ambassador to Canada, Nunn’s campaign chairman and her father’s longtime chief of staff. “She’s spent 47 years with Sam Nunn. Who do you think she’s going to get advice from?”
Former Georgia Gov. and Sen. Zell Miller (D) had the Nunns as his guests in his hometown of Young Harris. They attended the dedication of a new library at the local college, which Miller attended and used to teach at.
The conservative Democrat, who famously denounced Sen. John KerryJohn KerryEllison comments on Obama criticized as 'a stupid thing to say' 'Can you hear me now?' Trump team voices credible threat of force Obama to attend Pittsburgh Steelers owner's funeral MORE (D-Mass.) during his keynote speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, has backed Republicans for most of the last decade, including former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), who is a cousin of David Perdue. In August, endorsed his former staffer, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R). But in the Senate race, he’s backing Nunn.
“I’ve known Sam Nunn ever since his first campaign, and I think Sam Nunn has been one of Georgia’s greatest statesmen. And I think Michelle is a chip off the old block. She’s got the same traits that made Sam what he is and what he did,” he told The Hill. “I’ve known her since she was a small child, and I have a great deal of love and affection for her, and I have a great deal of confidence in her.”