On their way to victory, candidates often need the services of more than one political consultant. Likewise, defeat requires multiple grief counselors.
On the day after her loss in the U.S. Senate race, Michelle Nunn found herself curled up with a 9-year-old adviser who counseled stoicism. “Mom, I’m so sorry you lost. And there’s nothing you can do about it now,” her daughter said.
Her 11-year-old brother proposed retail therapy. Buy him an iPhone, he advised, and family honor would be restored.
But Mom was only defeated on Nov. 4. She wasn’t lobotomized.
Sixteen months ago, the daughter of Sam Nunn sat in the booth of a downtown Atlanta diner with a reporter and announced her intention to seek her father’s old seat in the U.S. Senate. On Thursday, Michelle Nunn sat with the same reporter, in another diner, for another formality of politicking: The dreaded post-defeat interview.
Though not as humiliating as the election-night call to one’s opponent, in this case Republican David Perdue, there is little joy in such conversations. But exit interviews can serve as kind of a pilot light for optimism, a small signal that the candidate is not through.
For if you are truly done with politics, there is nothing so peaceful as a white, sandy beach in the Bahamas, without a journalist in sight.
“I feel we ran a good campaign. I feel proud of it. We had a great team – volunteers and staff,” she began. “You spend the first few days being disappointed. Then you spend the next few days feeling a lot of gratitude for the experience. And then you start to get into the analysis of it. I think that will go on for some time.”
In the meantime, the 47-year-old ex-candidate is as cautious about her future as she was about her campaign. She has been in touch with the Points of Light Foundation, the George H.W. Bush-founded volunteer organization that she headed, but wouldn’t say that she would return there.
When asked if she had another statewide race in her, Nunn’s reply was again studied.
“I will stay involved in service. That’s been the trajectory of my whole career,” she said. But politics?
“I’m certainly invested in continuing to build the kind of Georgia electorate that I think would be most healthy for our state – a two-party dialogue, one that engages more and more people,” Nunn said. “I’ll just leave open the possibility of electoral office.”
Her possibilities are limited. She is unlikely to run against Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson, who is seeking a third term in the U.S. Senate in 2016. Their messages of across-the-aisle cooperation are too similar.
Democrat Jason Carter, while defeated by Republican Nathan Deal, has positioned himself as a leading candidate in the 2018 race for governor. I asked Nunn if she would consider a state office, rather than a federal one.
Too soon to say, she said. “But I chose the race I was most interested in.”
All of this prodding is important because, despite the outcome, Nunn was in many ways the surprise candidate of 2014 in Georgia – just as Perdue was the unexpected force on the GOP side. Her fundraising was stellar, forcing Perdue to dip into his personal resources. She won Zell Miller to her side.
She lacked the oratory experience of Carter, a state senator, and had limited herself to a single debate in the Democratic primary – during which she uttered the phrase that would haunt the rest of the campaign: “I defer to the president’s judgment.”
But in three one-on-one confrontations with Perdue, a GOP nominee who weathered a series of primary and runoff debates, Nunn held her own – and would have won those forums on points. But Perdue merely had to repeat the words “Obama” and “rubber stamp.”
The Nunn campaign performed the season’s most elaborate feat of jujitsu, turning her opponent’s accusation that the Points of Light Foundation had funded a terrorist outfit into an embarrassment. And her team capitalized heavily on that deposition in which Perdue admitted that “outsourcing” was a facet of much of his business career.
If the election had been held Oct. 15, she might have won.
All that said, Nunn’s campaign missed some serious targets. She failed to lure an adequate share of white women, particularly young ones, away from Perdue.
“We didn’t get there. We didn’t get far enough with women. We just needed more participation. We’ve got to get more young people involved in the political process,” Nunn admitted. “We need a democracy that’s engaging our young people…as part of a healthy society.”
But here’s why you’re likely to see Michelle Nunn again: The last few weeks have seen a great deal of back-and-forth between Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and DuBose Porter, the current chairman of the state Democratic party, over what went wrong in 2014.
But now more than ever, the way out for Democrats appears to lie along a very female, very biracial path. Nunn, who counted 100,000 donors in her files, could become an essential half of that equation.
Then there is the matter of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Whether she extends a national presidential campaign into Georgia in 2016 will go a long way toward determining the Democratic future here.
During that exit conversation, Nunn wouldn’t say whether she’d attach herself to Clinton or any other presidential candidate. But the man who served as chairman of her campaign, family-stalwart Gordon Giffin, is closely connected to the Clintons. And that is worth keeping in mind.
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