The GOP is desperate to take back the majority in the Senate this year — and it’s hard to see them doing it without winning in Georgia.
To take the Senate, which would give Republicans majorities in both chambers of Congress, the GOP needs to gain six seats without losing any of the ones they currently hold. Democrats have identified Georgia as one of only two potential steals, along with Kentucky.
There are several factors that have Democrats smelling blood in Georgia.
First, the race is open. Republican Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced his decision to retire and not seek a third term in January. Chambliss’ departure left the seat without an incumbent.
Demographics are another reason Democrats see a potential chance to move Georgia’s Senate seat across the aisle. Operatives who spoke to Business Insider cited a combination of new residents entering the metro-Atlanta area looking for work and growing birth rates among minorities as factors that could make the state start to turn from red to purple.
Along with shifting demographics and an open seat, Democrats have lined up a candidate with a political pedigree to run in the race. Michelle Nunn won the Democratic primary with 75% of the vote. She is the daughter of former Democratic Georgia Senator Sam Nunn. Despite her Democratic roots, the younger Nunn also has legitimate bipartisan bona fides. She built her career thus far in the non-profit sector, spending 20 years running former President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation.
Democrats are excited about Nunn’s chances, said Rashad Taylor, who served as a Democrat in Georgia’s House of Representatives from 2009 until last year and is founder of Five Eleven, LLC, an Atlanta-based public affairs, political consulting, and government relations firm.
“Michelle Nunn is in a great position to win. She has put together a top notch campaign operation,” Taylor said. “She is the type of person who has proven that she can raise the money to compete and who can attract the common sense voter from either party […] who are just sick of gridlock in Washington.”
Taylor also pointed to Nunn’s father and other Georgia Democrats as evidence the state isn’t as conservative as it’s reputed to be.
“Georgia is not Mississippi. We are not Alabama. Up until 2002, Georgia had solidly Democratic leadership. We are very much more purple than people report,” Taylor said.
“Max Cleland, Sam Nunn, Saxby Chambliss — these aren’t the Ted Cruzs of the country,” he added. “These aren’t radicals and these are historically the kind of Senators we have had [in Georgia]. And this is what Michelle Nunn represents.”
However, perhaps the main reason Democrats see an opportunity to steal a Senate seat from the Republicans in Georgia is the brutal GOP primary underway in the state. No candidate received the required 50% of the vote necessary to lock down the Republican nomination in last month’s primary, which triggered a runoff between the top two finishers, Jack Kingston and David Perdue. The runoff is scheduled to take place July 22.
The runoff makes this the longest primary in the history of the seat. The nine-week campaign stretch triples the traditional three-week period, meaning the Republican candidates are currently reaching back into their pockets and running full fledged campaigns just to seal the party nomination. Both Republicans are also using their resources to attack each other, a dream scenario for Democrats.
Kingston is currently the congressman representing the first district of Georgia. In the House of Representatives, Kingston has enjoyed high approval ratings, with 75% of his home district voting for him in the primary. He is now a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and Chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee. Kingston’s work in Washington has led Perdue to try to brand him as a so-called “Washington insider” candidate.
Kingston spokesman Chris Crawford told Business Insider that Kingston’s first priority, should he take the Senate seat, would be to “return to something like [Newt Gingrich’s] Contract with America,” which originated in 1994 and was revisited in 2011. The plan vied for a balanced-budget amendment, huge tax cuts, and increased spending on national security.
Crawford outlined the plan Kingston would push forward if he takes the Senate seat, which the campaign has dubbed the “American Renewal Initiative.” The three key pieces of the plan are as follows — cultivating a strong national defence, balancing the budget, and focusing on job creation.
Perdue is a businessman with a reported net worth of at least $US11.9 million. He’s worked with companies like Sara Lee, Haggar, and Reebok and served as CEO of Dollar General from 2003 to 2007. Politics also run in Perdue’s family — his cousin, Sonny Perdue, is the former governor of Georgia.
Perdue has attempted to win support among grassroots conservatives by capitalising on his “outsider” image and branding himself as the candidate who has yet to be poisoned by the trenches of Congress. In an email sent to supporters last Wednesday, the Perdue campaign said that an “anti-establishment sentiment is being felt all across the country, and [in the runoff] on July 22nd, we have an opportunity in Georgia to say 22 years in Washington is enough for my opponent Congressman Kingston.”
The Perdue platform has focused on addressing the $US17 trillion national debt, implementing a comprehensive tax reform, repealing Obamacare, and balancing the budget in Georgia. He also has defended both the 2nd Amendment and emphasised his opposition to abortion.
However, while Perdue clearly hopes to win by running to the right, Kingston has earned support of Republicans of all stripes. He has racked up endorsements from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Chamber of Congress, former candidates Karen Handel and Phil Gingrey, conservative commentator Sean Hannity, and the Georgia Tea Party.
When asked about whether or not Kingston was concerned about being labelled as a Washington insider, Crawford said, “Mr. Perdue is pursuing something that is out of touch with Georgia. He has a record of being a liberal flip-flopper who […] called for a federal solution to health care and criticised a state solution, which is what most Georgians want.”
Crawford also criticised Perdue’s wealth, commenting that “while Kingston was fighting against the stimulus package, Perdue was pocketing over a million dollars working for three companies that received over $US3 million in stimulus money.” Perdue’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Update (4:29 p.m.): Perdue campaign spokesman Derrick Dickey responded to these claims in an email to Business Insider.
“Congressman Kingston has an indefensible record of liberal spending for two decades in Washington so he has resorted to the typical tactics of a career politician by simply lying about David,” Dickey wrote.
So far, signs point to Kingston coming out ahead in his brutal intra-party fight against Perdue. According to a recent poll conducted for the Kingston campaign by Republican polling firm McLaughlin & Associates, Kingston leads Perdue, 49-35, with 16% of voters undecided. That result aligns closely to the SurveyUSA automated poll released last week that showed Kingston ahead, 52-41.
While Kingston is looking solid against Perdue, recent polls show he’s in for a much tighter race if he makes it into the general against Nunn. Some polls on that race have come out with Nunn in the lead while others show Kingston ahead. An NBC News/Marist poll conducted early last month showed them both tied.
Though polls show she has a shot, observers say Nunn has a unique challenge on her hands. Her campaign must complete a delicate balancing act to both energizing the Democratic base in Metro-Atlanta while also bringing in “soft” Republicans who may be willing to vote across party lines. This has proven to be a tough mission to accomplish, as it has forced Nunn to remain neutral or silent on charged issues like Obamacare, so as not to offend potential conservative swing voters. By keeping relatively quiet on the issues, though, she may not be able to garner the 200,000 unregistered Democratic voters she needs to secure a victory.
And awareness of Georgia’s crucial importance to the larger Senate majority fight may also be hindering Nunn.
“The issue now is that people voting in midterm elections are voting not only for a candidate, but for a party to control the Senate. So Republicans are seeing a vote for Michelle Nunn as a vote for Harry Reid,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta who specialises in the political effects of demographic shifts.
Nunn has a secret weapon as she confronts these challenges. Operation “Bannock Street,” a Democratic Party plan to apply algorithmic technology to identify political leanings of potential voters and ideal methods of convincing them to vote, has allocated a large portion of its resources to the race in Georgia. According to an article written last Tuesday by The Guardian, “The push involves the recruitment of 4,000 paid staff and will cost $US60m, and is being orchestrated from Washington by Guy Cecil,” the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
However, even with high-tech tools at her disposal in a state where the electorate seems to be growing less and less red, Nunn may be facing an uphill battle. Abramowitz argued the “odds are against” Nunn because the demographic changes occurring in Georgia are happening slower than Democrats might like.
“We know, based on what the Census tells us, that the demographic makeup is changing in Georgia. Politically, this means that there is a gradually changing electorate [towards a more liberal balance,] but it is lagging a few years behind the general voting population,” Abramowitz said.
Still, while the Republicans may be able to win this battle, Abramowitz suggested Georgia’s electoral balance could be shifting for good in the relatively near future.
“By 2020, or even 2016, Georgia will emerge as a swing state,” he said. “Unfortunately for someone like Michelle Nunn, I think she has the right idea, but is just a few years too early.”
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