HOT SENATE SEAT
This is one of an occasional series of reports examining the records of candidates for Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2014.
U.S. Senate candidates
- Rep. Paul Broun of Athens
- Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta
- Derrick Grayson of Stone Mountain
- Karen Handel of Roswell
- Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah
- David Perdue of Glynn County
- Eugene Chin Yu of Augusta
- John Coyne of Alpharetta
- Michelle Nunn of Atlanta
- Branko Radulovacki of Atlanta
- Todd Robinson of Columbus
Michelle Nunn’s political baptism arrived at age 6, when she passed out fliers at the Piggly Wiggly advertising the long-shot U.S. Senate campaign of her father, Sam Nunn.
That grocery store is closed now, and “The Flying Nunn” RV from 1972 has begotten a red minivan that is taking Michelle Nunn and her family across Georgia to make her debut as a candidate.
The road ahead is daunting: an attempt to break Republican dominance in statewide politics and capture a U.S. Senate seat as a Democrat.
As she took her first steps down the campaign trail last week, Nunn, 46, began in Middle Georgia, where fond memories of her father remain. But Sam Nunn was part of a dying breed, the conservative Southern Democrat, which has only dwindled since he left the Senate in 1997.
Michelle Nunn’s challenge is to build her own identity while wedging herself into the doors her family name opens. Her early campaign stops were intended to shape her image as a bridge-builder and show off her career leading the multinational volunteer service organization Points of Light, with a minimal focus on politics.
The political attacks have arrived anyway and will only escalate over the next 15 months. Republicans tried to paint her as an ultra-liberal before she even joined the race, and primary foe Branko Radulovacki, an Atlanta psychiatrist, distinguishes himself as the Democrat who doesn’t have the “Washington insider anointing.”
“I’ve spent 25 years trying to find and support and mobilize and inspire the best in people,” Nunn said. “And in the political arena, people are tending to … find what’s wrong, what’s the underbelly. And so that’s an adjustment for me.”
Her performance will be closely scrutinized across the country. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee celebrated her as a top recruit and declared Georgia as one of six 2014 races that will determine which party controls the Senate.
Nunn's campaign trumpeted poll results last week from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showing her tied or ahead of all the Republican candidates, but the same poll gave President Barack Obama a 54 percent disapproval rating in the state.
"That video of (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid telling millionaires backing (Obama's Organizing for Action) that President Obama needs Michelle Nunn in Washington to enact his radical agenda is a problem for any Southern Democrat hoping to attract independent voters," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said. "It gives every Georgian a reason not to vote for her."
A changed landscape
Sam Nunn has seen this playbook before.
He joked during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the strategy of his 1972 opponent, Fletcher Thompson, was to put up Nunn-McGovern signs, linking him with the Democrats’ liberal antiwar presidential nominee. Nunn’s strategy was to take the signs down.
George McGovern got creamed in Georgia and throughout the country. Nunn won handily.
“I’m sure there will be that kind of effort with Michelle,” Nunn said. “There will be some similarities. Things don’t change.”
Georgia politics have changed considerably since the Sam Nunn era. Many conservative Democrats, including Nathan Deal long before he became governor and was still in the U.S. House, have become Republicans, and the GOP now controls every statewide office. The state Democratic Party is in disarray.
But rising minority populations give Democrats hope for a comeback, and in this race they’re banking on a divisive Republican primary — seven GOP candidates are vying to succeed U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss with no clear favorite — and a Democrat with crossover appeal.
Suzanne Wood, the chairwoman of the Bibb County Republican Party, said Sam Nunn is still “very well respected” in Middle Georgia and that will help his daughter — even among Republicans.
“People will be more willing to listen to her and what she has to say,” Wood said. “Obviously, she has to stand on her own two feet at some point, but that name is going to get her foot in the door.”
Nunn’s 10-stop statewide campaign kickoff, which wraps up early next week in Atlanta, is a family vacation of sorts for her husband, Ron Martin, 10-year-old son Vinson and 8-year-old daughter Elizabeth. In addition to service projects, designed mostly to gin up local news coverage, Michelle Nunn will squeeze in meetings and family activities such as museum trips.
She struck an informal tone in her first appearance at the Georgia Industrial Children’s Home in Macon, chatting with staffers and volunteers to the point that a television camera operator asked her to start stuffing backpacks with donated school supplies so he could get the shot.
Comfortable among social services workers and volunteers, her conversations lingered well past a politician’s usual grip-and-grin, occasionally making her timekeepers anxious but leaving mostly positive impressions.
Plumber Nancy Harvey, a volunteer at the children’s home, came away impressed with Nunn’s “personal responsibility message” after a chat about education policy.
A self-described libertarian, Harvey considers the Republican Chambliss to be too liberal. “I think he sold his soul to the man,” she said. Nonetheless, she said she would consider voting for the Democrat.
“I’d have to talk to her some more,” Harvey said.
On Day Two in Columbus, Nunn gave a brief speech, but only by request. She said at Points of Light she witnessed “the power of people to come together across differences to create change. … I don’t see that as much in Washington.”
The apolitical introduction can only last so long.
“Everyone thinks volunteering and charitable work is admirable, but that’s not really what the race is about. And I think at a certain point she’s going to have to answer those (policy) questions,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus.
“It’s hard to know whether she’s kind of ready for the day-in, day-out pounding that is a United States Senate race in 2014,” McKoon said.
In Perry, Michelle Nunn paid a visit to Larry Walker, a former state House majority leader and an old ally of her father’s. He had a pointed question for the nascent campaign: “Do you know what you’re doing?”
Like father, like daughter?
Republicans will point out the differences between the popular elder Nunn — PPP found he had a 56 percent approval rating and just 12 percent disapproval in Georgia — and his daughter.
Sam Nunn, for example, battled President Bill Clinton in trying to keep gays out of the military. (He later said the military should reconsider the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, citing changing times.) Michelle Nunn supports gay marriage.
Sam Nunn was a product of Perry, but once he won a Senate seat he moved the family to Bethesda, Md. Michelle spent only her summers among rows of pecan trees on the family farm.
She attended the University of Virginia before moving to Atlanta. She helped build Hands on Atlanta into a powerhouse and merged it with Points of Light, which was founded by President George H.W. Bush. Nunn took a leave of absence as CEO to campaign.
Her family lives in Inman Park, and Nunn’s nonprofit travels often took her out of state. When Nunn announced her Georgia tour, the state GOP quipped: “Don’t forget your map!”
In the Democratic primary, the mild-mannered Radulovacki, a naturalized citizen who arrived from the former Yugoslavia at age 7, does not differ from Nunn much on policy but emphasizes that he does not come from a political lineage.
“My candidacy reflects not just the Democratic ideals, but really the American dream of being able to make it … riding on no one’s coattails,” said Radulovacki, who plans to fund a portion of his campaign himself. Democrats John Coyne of Alpharetta and Todd Robinson of Columbus also have announced Senate bids.
Political observers of all stripes agree that the Nunn legacy will be an asset, to a point. Sam Nunn said he would be available for advice whenever Michelle needs it, but he has his own busy schedule, working on the Nuclear Threat Initiative and his other post-senatorial pursuits.
He noted that most of his base was independent-minded, as he was in the Senate.
“She’ll get an ear,” Sam Nunn said, “but she won’t necessarily get a vote without proving herself.”
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