4:09pm

Tue July 29, 2014
Politics

The Great Blue Hope: Michelle Nunn Tries The Improbable In Ga.

Originally published on Tue July 29, 2014 7:31 pm

Georgia has been considered safely red territory for more than a decade. But there's a new energy among Democrats in the state, where candidate Michelle Nunn represents the party's best chance of winning a Senate seat in years.

This is Nunn's first run for public office, but she's far from an unknown in a state where her father, Sam Nunn, is a Democratic icon who represented Georgia in the Senate for more than two decades.

Like her father, Nunn positions herself as a moderate Democrat, willing to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans. She is the former head of the Points of Light Foundation, a group that promotes volunteerism and was founded by George H.W. Bush. Her first TV ad featured a photo with the former Republican president.

"I hope again to bring a voice that says we actually need to collaborate and work together to get solutions, and it's not about antagonism and polarization," she says.

It's a message tailored to reach beyond her Democratic base and appeal to independents and moderate Republicans.

"It includes a spectrum of people who are long-term Democrats and people who are Republicans and have been voting Republican for a long time," Nunn says. "I'm hearing from people all the time that they are ready for a change. And it really does cross the political spectrum."

With her family connections, Nunn has received almost automatic respect and attention, facing only token opposition in the Democratic primary.

But on the other side, Republicans fought a bruising primary over the nomination to replace retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss. After two rounds of voting, the winner was someone with another familiar political name: David Perdue, a businessman and the cousin of Georgia's popular former governor, Sonny Perdue.

In his victory speech after last week's primary, Perdue hit a central campaign theme.

"I respect Michelle Nunn. I respect her work. I respect her family," he said. "But with my business career, I will prosecute the failed record of the last six years of Barack Obama."

Republicans talk about Obama more than Nunn does herself, notes Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. She says that's because Nunn is trying to walk a narrow line.

"Michelle's Nunn's challenge is ... to figure out a way to distance herself enough from the Obama administration that she can appeal to moderate undecided voters, but not do so in a way that she ends up alienating the Democratic establishment such that they don't help her out," she says.

That's perhaps a reason why Nunn so frequently discusses her position on the Affordable Care Act. She says she wouldn't repeal it, but believes Congress should look at it and "fix the things that aren't working."

But she's studiously avoided saying whether she would have voted for it in the first place.

The Nunn campaign is hoping to build on the support President Obama drew two years ago in Georgia, when he came within 5 points of winning without ever campaigning in the state. But Republican political consultant Todd Rehm wonders whether the moderate Nunn will be able to count on that support.

"Without a presidential race that brought out some new voters, some folks who had lapsed into inactivity, it's unclear how to get them enthusiastic if you're not willing to go to the mat for your president," he says.

But there's something that Republicans and Democrats agree on — Georgia's electorate is changing as its population grows, with the number of minority voters increasing and the proportion of white voters shrinking.

"People of color in Georgia tend to vote Democratic. If you're African-American, it's in the high 90s," explains Stacey Abrams, the House minority leader in Georgia's General Assembly and the first African-American elected to that position. "If you're Latino or Asian, it's in the 70s and 80s, which means those are voters that are most likely to be Democratic voters if they're talked to, if they're recruited and if they are turned out."

To mobilize those potential supporters, Georgia Democrats have been working since January to target and contact voters through phone bank and canvassing operations.

But to win, Nunn's campaign will also need at least respectable numbers among white voters. Early strategy memos for the Nunn campaign leaked to the National Review, a conservative magazine, said the Democrat would likely need to win at least 30 percent of the white vote.

As the fall campaign begins, Republicans believe they can dominate that segment of the electorate by tying Nunn to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Nunn, meanwhile, is trying to combine her appeal to new voters with the traditions cited in the Georgia state seal: "Wisdom," "Justice" and "Moderation."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Both Republicans and Democrats have Georgia on their minds. There are many close contests in the upcoming midterm elections but Georgia is one of the only states where Democrats have a real shot at retaking a Senate seat. NPR's Greg Allen reports that candidate Michelle Nunn is hoping to carry on her father's legacy as a senator and moderate Democrat.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's been the reddest of red states for more than a decade but there's a new energy among Georgia Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

ALLEN: A couple of dozen campaign volunteers were out bright and early recently for a breakfast rally at a diner in Atlanta. This is Michelle Nunn's first run for public office but she's far from an unknown. Her father Sam Nunn is a Democratic icon in Georgia, having represented the state in the Senate for more than two decades. Michelle Nunn is a former head of the Points of Light Foundation - a group that promotes volunteerism and which was founded by former President George H. W. Bush. Her First TV ad featured a photo of her with a former Republican president. Like her father, Michelle Nunn positions herself as a moderate Democrat, willing to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans.

MICHELLE NUNN: I hope again to bring a voice that says, we actually need to collaborate and work together to get solutions and it's not all about antagonism and polarization.

ALLEN: It's a message tailored to reach beyond her Democratic base, one that might appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. Nunn says, her campaign is working to build a broad base of support.

NUNN: It includes a spectrum of people who are long-term Democrats and people who are Republicans and have been voting Republican for a long time. I'm hearing from people all the time that they are ready for a change and it really does cross the political spectrum.

ALLEN: With her family connections Nunn has received almost automatic respect and attention. When she decided to run, the Democratic Party got behind her and she faced only token opposition in the primary. On the other side, Republicans fought a bruising primary over the nomination to replace retiring GOP Senator Saxby Chambliss. After two rounds of voting the winner was someone with another familiar political name. David Perdue was at businessman and the cousin of Georgia's former popular governor, Sonny Perdue. In his victory speech after last week's primary, Perdue hit a central campaign theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

DAVID PERDUE: I respect Michelle Nunn. I respect her work. I respect her family. But with my business career I will prosecute the failed record of the last six years of Barack Obama.

ALLEN: Republicans talk about Obama more than Nunn does herself. Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, says that's because Nunn is trying to walk a narrow line.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Michelle Nunn's challenge is going to have to figure out a way to distance herself enough from the Obama administration that she can appeal to moderate, undecided voters but not do so in a way that she ends up alienating the Democratic establishment such that they don't help her out.

ALLEN: The issue Nunn probably spends the most time discussing is her position on the Affordable Care Act. She says, she wouldn't repeal it but believes Congress should look at it and, quote, "fix the things that aren't working." But she studiously avoided saying whether she would have voted for in the first place. The Nunn campaign is hoping to build on the support President Obama drew two years ago in Georgia when he came within five points of winning without ever campaigning in the state. Republican political consultant Todd Ream wonders how much of that support the moderate Nunn will be able to count on.

TODD REAM: Without a presidential race that brought out some new voters, some folks who had lapsed into inactivity, it's unclear how you get them enthusiastic if you're not willing to go the mat for your president.

ALLEN: But there's something that Republicans and Democrats agree on - Georgia's electorate is changing. With migration and population growth, the number of minority voters is growing and the proportion of white voters is shrinking. Stacey Abrams is the House Minority Leader in Georgia's General Assembly, the first African-American elected to that position.

STACEY ABRAMS: People of color in Georgia tend to vote Democratic. If you're African Americans it's in the high 90's. If you're Latino or Asian it's in the 70's or 80's. Which means that those are voters who are most likely to be Democratic voters if they are talked to, if they are recruited and if they're turned out.

ALLEN: To mobile those potential supporters, Georgia Democrats have been working since January to target and contact voters through phone bank and canvassing operations. But to win, Nunn's campaign will also need at least respectable numbers among white voters. Early strategy memos for the Nunn campaign leaked to the website for the conservative magazine National Review said, the Democrat would likely need to win at least 30 percent of the white vote. As the fall campaign begins, Republicans believe they can dominate the white vote by tying Nunn to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Nunn, meanwhile, is trying to combine her appeal to new voters with a tradition cited on the Georgia state seal - wisdom, justice and moderation. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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