Nunn, Carter have political futures — should they choose to run again

Political coverage

Georgia’s voters just reshaped the state’s congressional delegation while re-electing many of the top officials at the state level. To see what happens next in Georgia’s politics, check these options from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Jason Carter waded into his crowd of supporters gathered in an Atlanta hotel ballroom Tuesday after conceding defeat to Gov. Nathan Deal, hugged friends and posed for pictures.

One of his admirers shouted: “Four more years and you got it!” Carter smiled but didn’t take the bait. He also didn’t take questions from reporters then and hasn’t publicly spoken of his plans since. Nor has fellow Democrat Michelle Nunn, who lost to David Perdue in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race.

But they both would have a bright future in politics if they decide to run again, state Democratic leaders say. Both are young, well-educated and articulate candidates with strong political pedigrees. Carter is a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. And Nunn is the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.

“They represent the future of the Democratic Party,” said party Chairman DuBose Porter, a one-time gubernatorial hopeful himself. “These are your young, smart, visionary people who we were thankful ran this time. You couldn’t find anyone better than them.”

Over the course of the campaign, Carter built a strong fundraising network while crisscrossing the state in a bright green and blue bus. He reached out to people in the Atlanta region and disaffected voters in rural communities. In the end, he managed to do better than any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia since 2002, when then-Gov. Roy Barnes picked up 46 percent of the vote in his loss to Republican Sonny Perdue.

“I am confident this is not the last we have heard from” Carter, said Michael Coles, Carter’s campaign committee chairman. “You can’t have someone as powerful a candidate as Jason was and possibly think that he is just going to go off somewhere into the sunset. He has too much to offer.”

Even Deal had — mostly — kind words for his former adversary the day after the election.

“He has a bright political future. He may have been ahead of his time on this political cycle,” he said, adding: “None of us need to be prideful. We need to be thankful. But we don’t need to be prideful. Pride goes before the fall.”

Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist, said a 2018 run for governor is possible for Carter.

“I always thought that this could be just a trial heat for him, like a warm-up act, and that 2018 might be an even better opportunity for him,” Swint said. “We might have a different environment by then, too. Obama will be gone. It will be an open seat.”

Emory University’s Andra Gillespie believes Carter’s path to the Governor’s Mansion has also become more complicated. For one, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is widely seen as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2018.

“Reed will have the advantage of one, having been an executive and having governed,” Gillespie said. “Two, Reed will have just stepped down.”

Reed is term-limited as mayor and his successor will be chosen in November 2017, meaning he’ll remain a public figure right up to 2018.

“If Reed is able to finish his term as mayor strongly, then that puts Reed, gives Reed an advantage,” Gillespie said, noting that Deal was able to paint Carter as young and inexperienced. Now, with no Senate seat, Carter is effectively out of politics and will need to find a way to remain relevant.

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said Carter and Nunn were strong candidates with “good cross-over appeal, good messaging, good backgrounds.”

“Either they are going to put their names up again or that type of caliber of candidates will put forth their names,” he said.

Tharon Johnson, perhaps the state’s most successful Democratic strategist, said Nunn must be considered a top contender for any future race she chooses to run.

“What makes her a viable future candidate is the ability that she showed to raise a significant amount of money, and she generated the national attention that Georgia needed in order to be a battleground state in 2016,” said Johnson, who led Reed’s mayoral campaign in 2009 and President Barack Obama’s 2012 Southern strategy. “She has earned the right to be on anyone’s list as a potential statewide candidate going forward.”

A person involved in the Nunn campaign, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that at first it appeared this year’s campaign “was an all or nothing deal for her.” But, that person said, as time went on and she grew into the role, “she decided she liked it and was good at it.”

“I think she could certainly do it again,” that person said.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Gordon Giffin, Nunn’s campaign chairman, said Nunn is dedicated to public service, but that does not mean she’s “someone who is compelled to political office.”

“There are a lot of people who run for political office and don’t win and get up the next morning and start considering the next office they’ll pursue,” Giffin said. “… She’s not a politician. Her first instinct is not to think of another public office to run for.”

That doesn’t mean she won’t or that she shouldn’t, Giffin said.

“Michelle impressed an enormous number of people in her race,” he said. “She inspired an enormous number of people.

“She has residual goodwill for having run a remarkable race and that goodwill extends beyond the percentage of the vote she received.”

Moments after Carter called Deal to concede the race, he stepped on stage accompanied by his wife and two young sons.

“Don’t be discouraged out there,” he told his supporters. “I certainly am not. We have accomplished something real. Our state is a better place.”

In the adjacent Hyatt ballroom, Nunn offered a similar message once the outcome was clear.

“We have changed politics in Georgia. Not just tonight,” she told a subdued audience. “We’ve reminded people of what a two-party system looks like and a civil dialogue.”

She added: “We put Georgia in play. We built a foundation that needs to be cultivated, that needs to be built upon.”

There is, of course, precedent for a candidate to lose one race only to come back later and win. It’s a fact Jason Carter knows well.

In 1966, then state-Sen. Jimmy Carter finished third in a six-way Democratic primary for governor, taking 21 percent of the vote to finish outside the runoff, where Lester Maddox beat Ellis Arnall for the nomination.

In 1970, Carter ran again. This time, he finished first in the primary, beat Carl Sanders in the runoff and clobbered Hal Suit with 59 percent of the vote to win the governor’s office.

Gillespie, the Emory political scientist, warns that a future path to victory for Nunn is fraught with peril.

Georgia’s other U.S. senator, Republican Johnny Isakson, is up for re-election in 2016 and has already begun to lay the groundwork to run again. A popular incumbent, Isakson is also likely to be a committee chairman in the coming Republican majority, will be well-funded and confident. In other words, he’ll be hard to beat.

The risks for Nunn running in 2016 are “much higher,” Gillespie said.

“She didn’t have a lot to lose (this year) as a first-time candidate,” the Emory professor said. “But, if she were to run again in 2016 and lose again, even though Isakson is already at an advantage, she would start to fall into that perpetually losing candidate category.”