Michelle Nunn strolled through the Capitol basement last week alongside outgoing Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet — just a month after her loss in the Georgia Senate race.
Nunn, the former CEO of the Points of Light Foundation and daughter of a revered former senator, was the party's top recruit in 2014. Despite an 8-point loss to Sen.-elect David Perdue, the first-time candidate had brought in more than $14 million by the end of the campaign and her retail skills were polished enough to impress operatives in both parties.
Her overall performance was strong enough to keep her at the top of the list of potential candidates for any statewide race in Georgia in the next few years, according to multiple Democrats in the state. Her level of interest in a future bid remains unknown, but Bennet told CQ Roll Call not to read too much into Nunn's visit to Capitol Hill last week, including speculation she's considering a next-cycle challenge to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
“We had talked after the campaign was over about her just coming for a visit, and that’s what it was, just a friendly visit,” Bennet said. “I can tell you what we didn’t talk about: The subject of 2016 did not come up in the conversation at all.” A Nunn spokesman did not comment on her trip or her future. Multiple Georgia Democrats said separately that the candidate likely wanted to personally thank the senators who had helped her campaign, but some read more into it.
“That’s her style, but she’s also savvy enough to realize she’s preserving some relationships up there,” one Georgia Democratic operative said. “[Gubernatorial candidate] Jason Carter clearly said that he was not done. Michelle has not said that one way or the other, but she certainly has not closed the door on anything.”
Nunn was recruited to run in 2008, but held off until the seat came up again in 2014. Bennet demurred on what might be next for Nunn, but just as several Georgia Democrats did last week, he sang the praises of both Nunn and her campaign.
“I think she grew tremendously as a candidate, but I think she was also a good candidate at the start,” he said. “She was one of the best candidates we had. There wasn’t an area where they weren’t strong as a campaign.”
Nunn’s loss pumped the brakes on the Peach State's potential transition into a swing state. Still, even Republicans concede a booming population in the Atlanta suburbs, particularly among minorities, portends more competitive statewide contests at some point in the future, even as the rest of the South continues to slip away from Democrats.
The lingering questions are when that comes and whether the timing will align with Nunn’s interest in seeking another office. With her strong fundraising showing, precision on the stump and careful messaging strategy, any talk of contenders for either governor or senator in the next few years will likely start with her.
“I think she will remain among the upper tier of statewide candidates until she either declares herself for another race or says she doesn’t want to do it,” Georgia Democratic consultant Howard Franklin said. “The difficulty — if there is any — is finding a race that is suited to the strengths she brings to the table.”
Her next campaign, at this point, isn’t likely to come in 2016, with the well-liked Isakson having already announced he intends to seek re-election. A second straight loss could damage her ability to clear the primary field in a more promising opportunity in the future, though Isakson lost twice statewide before his election to the Senate in 2004.
“Yes, I do think she’s a viable candidate, I just don’t know that there’s a viable path,” said one Georgia GOP operative involved in the midterms, who was complimentary of Nunn’s candidacy this year.
“I think all Republicans acknowledge the demographic change here, but you could tell Democrats didn’t believe what they were saying about how close to parity they are — because they refused to run Democrat campaigns,” the operative said, referring to the lack of embrace for President Barack Obama or his policies. “At some juncture, when we do get close to parity, these candidates are going to have to start being stronger Democrats.”
Republicans aren’t the only ones saying that. It’s at the heart of the post-election discussion in Georgia Democratic circles and could be among the issues in a potential state party chairman election, as could concerns about the party’s voter registration effort this year.
“Do you work to energize the base in the next election or do you work to win over independent and swing white voters? That’s the debate we’re having now,” said Rashad Taylor, a Georgia Democratic consultant at Mack Sumner Communications and a former state representative. “However we come out we’ll be in a better position in 2016 than we were this year.”
The current state party chairman, DuBose Porter, could face a challenge from Tharon Johnson, who was President Barack Obama’s Southern regional director in 2012. Both Porter and Johnson told CQ Roll Call Nunn would be an attractive candidate for any race in the near future.
Taylor said if 2014 were not a national wave year, both Nunn and Carter, who lost his challenge to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, would have performed better — and most are optimistic about the next presidential election year. If Nunn declines to challenge Isakson in 2016, the next Senate race won’t come until 2020, when Perdue is up for re-election and Nunn is six years removed from her last race.
The other notable option for Nunn is an open gubernatorial race in 2018.
“In Democratic circles that I’m moving in, people are still very much excited about what she brought and definitely thought she acquitted herself well as a candidate,” Franklin said. “But I think more importantly for a state like Georgia, which likely won’t be saved by D.C., I think she did the things that were necessary: She put together a professional organization, she raised a boat-load of money, and she went out there with a centrist message that I think would appeal to Georgians regardless of their partisan stripe.”
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