As GOP Senate hopefuls clash, pressure on Nunn starts to build

As the vitriol among Republican contenders for Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat intensifies, the party’s heavyweights are taking behind-the-scenes steps to boost the eventual nominee amid concerns that the bruising contest could help a Democrat win the seat.

A conservative group last week launched a round of attack ads to try to define Democratic front-runner Michelle Nunn before she can do so herself. Republican groups are quietly raising millions of dollars to trumpet their nominee — and target Nunn. And party operatives hope to take advantage of a recent electoral change to boost voter turnout.

Complicating the efforts is the still-muddied GOP field that includes three sitting congressmen, a former Georgia secretary of state and an ex-Fortune 500 chief executive. With no clear front-runner, GOP leaders are already urging the party faithful to keep one eye on November as the May 20 primary and July 22 runoff loom.

A GOP victory in Georgia is pivotal to the party's attempt to retake the Senate and restrict President Barack Obama's legislative agenda in his last two years in office. Republicans need to pick up six seats to control the Senate, and losing the seat of retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss could doom their efforts.

At Republican events across the state, there is an undercurrent of fear that the divided primary could strengthen Nunn, a nonprofit executive who is the daughter of former Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton made that much clear last month with an impassioned introduction to a Senate debate in Macon.

“Barack Obama would not be the president today if every one of us would have gotten over not having the person we might have voted for in the primary,” Scott, his voice crackling with emotion, told the few hundred activists who came to judge the Republican Senate candidates that Saturday night.

As the race drags on, party insiders are starting to take concrete steps to ratchet up the pressure on Nunn.

This month, a Republican-allied Super PAC began airing television ads attacking Nunn over her support for Obama’s health care overhaul, focusing intently on pictures of the two politicians. The group, called Ending Spending, was founded by billionaire Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and counts among its donors casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who single-handedly propped up Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign in 2012.

The group said Monday that it has spent $1.3 million snapping up airtime across the state — a move seen as the beginning of a wave of outside investments seeking to influence the Georgia race.

Nunn debuted her first ad days later, a biographical spot emphasizing her cross-party appeal by showing Nunn with President George H.W. Bush, the founder of her Points of Light Foundation.

Another group is quietly seeking to make an even deeper imprint on the race. The Senate Battleground Fund held its first fundraiser on a recent Sunday evening at the Buckhead mansion of Jeff Sprecher and Kelly Loeffler, the couple who helped turn the Atlanta-based IntercontinentalExchange into a force in global finance.

The guest speaker at the hush-hush gathering that evening was former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Organizers said they raised more than $1 million from donors who paid a minimum of $10,000 to attend. The growing account will be split among Republican groups to boost the eventual GOP nominee.

“It’s important that Republicans hold onto the Senate seat in Georgia as we look to a year where Republicans have a good chance at taking the Senate majority,” said Eric Tanenblatt, the longtime Republican insider who helped organize the Battleground Fund event.

One of the most significant changes, though, may be last week’s announcement that Georgia residents will be allowed to register to vote online for the first time. The change can help both parties, but Georgia GOP Chairman John Padgett said it gives Republicans the “unmistakable opportunity” to boost their numbers during a get-out-the-vote effort planned this summer.

By then, the Republican primary will be in a one-on-one slugfest before the runoff.

The GOP attacks are starting to escalate even now. A video from January surfaced last week of businessman David Perdue calling out former Secretary of State Karen Handel for being “a high school graduate.”

“I’m sorry, but these issues are so much broader, so complex,” Perdue added.

Handel's campaign said it was disappointed that Perdue would "demean" someone who had to leave a broken home at 17 and worked her way up the corporate ladder without a degree. On a visit to south Fulton to rally for Handel, former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said Perdue's comments represented a "sad day" for Republicans.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston took a personal jab at Perdue at a recent debate in Savannah.

Kingston said “no gate separates your house from my house,” a reference to the polling front-runner Perdue’s gated community on Sea Island.

Nunn, meanwhile, has had the state’s Democratic establishment rally around her, leaving her three primary foes — former state Sen. Steen Miles, psychiatrist Branko Radulovacki and firefighter Todd Robinson — with little money or traction.

Republicans have accused Nunn of not being visible enough in Georgia.

“Georgians have no idea who the real Michelle Nunn is because she spends all of her time attending out-of-state fundraisers and only talking to liberal media outlets,” said Leslie Shedd, a recent hire by the Georgia GOP to coordinate messaging for the Senate campaign. “Campaigns aren’t run in vacuums, and sooner or later she will have to come clean with voters.”

The Nunn campaign contends that the candidate has been plenty visible, taking several open-press tours across the state centered on policy themes. She will stop in six Georgia cities later this month to talk about public-private partnerships, a staple of her work with the Points of Light Foundation.

Nunn also will debate her Democratic primary foes in May at the Atlanta Press Club, a spokesman confirmed, after skipping previous forums. But some Democrats remain concerned that Nunn is not visible enough, allowing an opening for Ending Spending and others to create a lasting impression.

“I’m not certain that Michelle Nunn hes defined herself well enough to not be cast as something that she’s not,” said Eric Gray, a Democratic consultant who worked briefly last year for the Radulovacki campaign. “She’s done nothing to indicate she’s an Obama liberal. … But the fact is that she hasn’t come out strongly one way or another on any number of issues.”

For Tharon Johnson, an Atlanta attorney who ran Obama’s re-election campaign in the South, the proof is in the numbers. He cited a Channel 2 Action News poll out last week showing Nunn running closely against all the Republican candidates as evidence that her famous last name gives her widespread recognition and appeal, so she does not have to spend lots of money to introduce herself.

“Republicans in Georgia are scared, and that’s why they’re trying to bloody her up a little bit,” Johnson said. “They’re seeing the same numbers.”

Nunn, meanwhile, seems content to watch the Republican candidates duke it out.

“I think it seems to be a kind of a drive to extremes in ideology,” she said last month when she qualified for the race, one of a handful of public appearances in Atlanta since announcing her campaign. “And they seem to be fighting each other for those extremes.”