SHELLMAN, Ga. — Michelle Nunn strolled along train tracks stretching past a depleted downtown lined with empty storefronts and toward a crowd of supporters hoping to meet the state’s next senator.
At a private home in the southwestern corner of the state, the first-time candidate greeted a bipartisan duo of state legislators, chatted up some 50 curious admirers and delivered a rhythmic 10-minute stump speech that was heavy on bipartisanship and light on an unpopular president.
“We have a real viable race here,” Nunn said.
How viable depends in part on which Republicans emerge from the May 20 primary and who is nominated in the July 22 runoff. That crowded race remains up in the air, with five Republicans capable of advancing. As a result, the contest to replace retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss is stuck in idle until mid-summer, giving Nunn another three months to prepare for the general. President Barack Obama lost Georgia by 7 points two years ago, and his low approval ratings in 2014 could prove particularly detrimental to red-state Democratic candidates. Still, given the midterm election cycle landscape, this is likely Democrats’ best pickup opportunity, and party operatives are optimistic about Nunn, who raised $2.4 million in the first quarter.
As she worked the covered patio adjacent to a flowing green yard, Nunn was met with questions and anecdotes about her father, as she often is on the campaign trail. Former four-term Sen. Sam Nunn was the last Georgia Democrat to win re-election to a Senate seat, in 1990, and his legacy of bipartisanship is still revered by voters of both parties.
"It gives me an entry point with people who remember my dad," Nunn said of her last name in an interview after the event. "It gives me a hearing. And then as I talk to a lot of young people, they're interested in my non-profit career and work with volunteers. So I think I'm able to have an entry point with voters in both ways."
Nunn’s pitch to the crowd highlighted how she came to head up the volunteer organization Points of Light, her family’s deep history in the state and the need for a willingness to overcome the dysfunction on Capitol Hill. She said the country’s corporate tax rate is too high, accentuated “fiscal stewardship” on behalf of future generations and pushed the fact that the fight for Georgia’s open Senate seat appears to be increasingly competitive.
“I think it ultimately is a race that determines are we for sensible, pragmatic and problem-solving leadership, or are we for extremism,” Nunn told the assembled crowd. “I’ve been reminding people of the Georgia state motto. It’s wisdom and justice and moderation — and I think those are the values we need and want more of, for Georgians and in Washington.”
Nunn earned laughs with quips about her parents, including a half-joking reference to her mom serving as the campaign's rapid-response director and stories she's heard from admirers of her father.
Supporters sipped on glass-bottled Coke and white wine in “Michelle Nunn” cups. The unseasonably cold morning had perked up into a picturesque afternoon, and locals were grateful the gnats were still a month away.
Never far removed from the tongues of Democrats and Republicans alike in attendance were comparisons between the younger and elder Nunns.
“She has the stamina and the tenacity that he has,” said Mary Jane Salter, a Senate aide to Nunn’s father for 14 years. “I think she’s somewhat a chip off the old block. One of the things that made him a great senator was the fact that he could speak up to his party when he needed to and cross the aisle to work with Republicans. I think Michelle can do that, too — she says she can.”
This race is rated Favored Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
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