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Georgia Senate: Maybe, Potentially, Possibly … but Not Yet

The recent entry of Michelle Nunn into the Georgia Senate race is good news for national and state Democrats who hope to swipe a normally Republican Senate seat in the Deep South.

Nunn, the daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, is CEO of Points of Light, a nonprofit organization that “helps put people at the center of transforming their communities.”

Democrats hope she can tap the reservoir of good will in the state that her father still has and that her outsider message of change and pragmatism will prove appealing, especially if Republicans nominate an uncompromising conservative member of Congress.

Nunn has plenty of assets. She has a good political name, a strong educational background (University of Virginia, Oxford and Harvard), a relationship with the Bush family through her work in volunteerism and no legislative record.

She has already received some state and national buzz, which should help fundraising (presumably already an asset through her work in nonprofits) and guarantee the kind of media coverage a top-tier candidate for an open seat needs.

The shape of the current GOP field surely fuels Democratic optimism.

Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston are in the race for the Republican nomination, as are former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and wealthy businessman David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok. Other names have also been mentioned.

Georgia requires a runoff unless one candidate wins more than half of the total vote, so a GOP Senate runoff seems guaranteed given the size and makeup of the primary field. And given factors such as ideology, geography, gender and money, it’s easy for any of the contenders to come up with a scenario why he or she will make a runoff.

Broun, 67, and Gingrey, 71, are both medical doctors and uncompromising conservatives with anti-government views. Broun, a “constitutionalist” who is a favorite of the Club for Growth, once called evolution and the Big Bang Theory “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Gingrey’s district is northwest of Atlanta, while Broun’s is east of the metropolitan area.

Kingston, 58, represents the southeastern corner of the state, including Savannah and Waycross. About as conservative as his two GOP colleagues, Kingston has a likable, easygoing style. He sits on the influential Appropriations Committee.  Two decades ago that would have been an unadulterated asset, but in the current GOP, being on Appropriations can be a double-edged sword. Still, he’d likely be a strong general-election nominee.

Handel garnered a lot of media attention when, as a vice president for public policy at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, she tried to end grants from the group to Planned Parenthood. She eventually resigned from the group and is now using that controversy to demonstrate her conservative credentials.

But Handel, 51, is no political neophyte. After serving as deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, she was elected to the Fulton County Board of Commissioners in 2003 and as Georgia secretary of state in 2006. Handel ran for governor in 2010, finishing first in the Republican primary. But she lost the runoff to then-Rep. Nathan Deal by just 2,519 votes.

The possibility of a GOP bloodbath is real, and a weak November nominee certainly could emerge. But a number of the Republican contenders would appear to start as formidable general-election candidates with appeal to both conservatives and pragmatists.

Whatever her strengths, Nunn has plenty of questions to answer and problems to address.

Although she mulled a Senate race in 2004, she has never run for office. Her candidate skills are untested. And while she has a good political family name, Sam Nunn was last on the ballot in 1990 — 23 years ago. Georgia’s population was 6,478,149 in 1990, far below the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of 9,919,945 in 2012. That’s a lot of new voters who don’t know Sam Nunn.

Barack Obama drew 47 percent of the vote in Georgia in 2008 and 45.5 percent last year. He will be Nunn’s single biggest liability in her bid. Obviously, she will try to localize the race.

The last Democratic presidential nominee to get more than 47 percent of the vote in The Peach State was Georgian Jimmy Carter, who drew 55.8 percent in 1980. Republicans now sit in all eight of Georgia’s statewide offices, and they have large majorities in both houses of the Georgia legislature.

As the nation has realigned geographically over the past 30 years, it has become harder for Democrats to win statewide federal office in the Deep South, and Georgia is no exception. Democratic strategists note the state’s changing demographics, and that certainly is true. But while that may change the political equation for 2020, it doesn’t change the state’s political arithmetic for 2014.

Midterm turnout trends suggest Nunn will have a harder time mobilizing Democratic constituencies in 2014 than she would have in 2012 or 2008, making it crucial for her to attract a larger share of independent and even normally Republican voters. That isn’t impossible, though it may be difficult given the normal midterm dynamic (where a sitting president’s party suffers).

Nunn has potential, and the Republican primary could increase her opportunities, both because of its bitterness and potential for producing a seriously flawed nominee.

But there is a heavy burden of proof on Nunn to show that she can win — or, rather, that Republicans are throwing the contest away. She will need every break to go her way to have any kind of real chance. Given that, we are moving this race from Safe Republican to Republican Favored. It’s certainly worth watching, though it doesn’t yet merit some of the early hype that it has received.