Georgia Democrat Declares Run For Senate

Taylor Colwell

7/23/2013 2:45:00 PM - Taylor Colwell

Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn and CEO of the nonprofit Points of Light foundation, will formally announce her candidacy today as a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss.

Shortly after 1 p.m. Monday, Michelle Nunn declared herself a Democratic candidate in the 2014 race for U.S. Senate, the very seat once held by her father.

The formal announce will come Tuesday, when she files the official paperwork. “I’m excited about it," Nunn said in an exclusive interview. "I’ve learned that you can’t wait for somebody else to do it. Everybody has an individual role and a responsibility to contribute where they can. This seems like a way for me to contribute.”

Nunn, 46, said she intends to make the nation’s finances and deficit reduction a key focus of her campaign, picking up where U.S. Saxby Chambliss leaves off. Chambliss, a Republican who retires next year after serving two terms, has played a central role in the so far unsuccessful “Gang of Eight” effort to craft a deal to reduce the $17 trillion federal debt.

Nunn's candidacy has been an open secret for months now, but this announcement will officially kick the campaign into high gear. While there are other declared candidates for the nomination, there is already a consensus among Democrats in Georgia and nationwide that Nunn will be the candidate. More and more, it's looking like Georgia could be one of the few states Democrats could pick up in 2014, a year in which they'll mostly be on the defensive. With Democrats' Senate majority increasingly vulnerable, Georgia will be one of their most important races.

With that said, Georgia is still a very red state. All statewide officeholders are Republicans, and the state Democratic Party is in shambles. Several things will have to happen for Nunn to win.

Most importantly, Nunn must convince Georgia voters that she's a centrist, even center-right candidate.

If Republicans succeed in linking her to President Obama and national Democrats, she's toast. Obama only lost by a respectable eight points in Georgia, but the coalition that voted for him in 2012 is unlikely to be as strong in midterm elections, and sure to be older and whiter. So she won't need to win just a few Republican voters -- she'll need to win a lot of them, especially in the metro Atlanta area.

To do this, she'll need Republicans to nominate someone who's very far-right.

Congressman Paul Broun would fit the bill, but he isn't faring well in fundraising or early polls. Congressman Phil Gingrey, whose money lead and solid early polling make him a much more viable candidate, is a bit of a wild card. He's made some controversialremarks of his own (not that they rival those of Paul "Lies From The Pit of Hell" Broun), but he's still well-liked in his north metro Atlanta district, the sort of voters Nunn needs to win over in the general election. Karen Handel is also in the mix, but she's coming off of a tough loss in the 2010 race for governor. That leaves Savannah Congressman Jack Kingston as, in my view, the Republicans' best candidate for 2014. The ten-term congressman is positioning himself as a conservative advocate for compromise and reform, in sharp contrast to the Broun (and to an extent Gingrey) approach that prioritizes ideological purity over practical politics. Kingston's leading initial polls and raising a lot of money, but he has a long way to go. His pragmatic brand of conservatism would probably keep Georgia red in November 2014, but he's got to navigate a rough primary first.

If the GOP primary turns out badly, though, Michelle Nunn's respected family legacy and good relationship with prominent Republicans, like the Bush family, could make her an acceptable choice for moderate and suburban Georgia Republicans. With enough support from these voters, she'll win.

But even if everything goes right for Michelle Nunn, she's got one last hurdle to overcome.

She has to show Georgia voters that supporting her doesn't mean supporting a Democratic majority in the Senate.

This argument will probably be Nunn's most difficult to make. Even if moderates prefer her to a far-right Republican nominee, they may still vote against her solely because they want to see a Republican majority in the Senate. This is the strategy Elizabeth Warren used to beat Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and it could doom Michelle Nunn even against an inferior GOP candidate.

As we move closer to midterm elections, Georgia will be a race to watch. Its outcome may well decide who controls the Senate after 2014.