Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn has weathered the initial fallout from an unintended leak of a campaign plan that detailed her strategy and discussed her potential weaknesses as an Atlanta nonprofit executive seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate.
But Republicans and some Democrats think the more powerful blows will come later, as GOP nominee David Perdue and the independent super PACs that support him try to use the Nunn campaign's words against her in a deluge of television ads.
Outside groups have already spent more than $8 million on the race, and Perdue, a former corporate CEO, is wealthy enough to finance whatever level of advertising he desires. The question is whether those attacks persuade voters in a contest that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the last year of President Barack Obama's administration.
"The outside groups are going to take this and go nuclear on her," said Georgia GOP strategist Joel McElhannon of the memos first published by the conservative magazine National Review, which said they were unintentionally uploaded briefly to Nunn's campaign website in December.
Republicans, McElhannon said, will continue using the 144-page document to buttress their claims that Nunn is a "closet liberal" who's "being dishonest with voters" by campaigning as a moderate "who is above all the usual politics."
A top Nunn backer, former Democratic Rep. George "Buddy" Darden, downplayed the coming GOP offensive. "But this is all stuff they would say anyway," he said. "This will ultimately just be a blip on the screen."
For her part, Nunn said the disclosure doesn't change her fundamental message. "What's remained constant is we're focused on talking about a collaborative approach ... and changing the culture in Washington," she told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution this week. Her campaign declined to make her available to The Associated Press.
The document is a compilation of consultant-written memos that detail Nunn's hopes to increase minority voter turnout while building a fundraising behemoth to compete with Republicans. Also outlined are anticipated Republican attacks, from Nunn's childhood outside Georgia and her ties with national Democrats to loose associations between her Points of Light Foundation and a Palestinian charity with its own alleged link to Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, at war with Israel.
Gathering such details isn't uncommon in a major campaign, but GOP consultant Chip Lake said having the most frank assessments on paper is unusual.
Every campaign depends on money, but the Nunn memo states plainly that "hitting our targets will require us to prioritize fundraising above all else and to focus the candidate's time on it with relentless intensity." The document identifies the Jewish community as a "tremendous financial opportunity" but cautions that "the level of support will be contingent on her position" on Israel.
Nunn doesn't shy away from the fact that she grew up in suburban Washington while her father, Sam Nunn, represented Georgia in the Senate. But one memo says that as part of her effort to reach small-town and rural voters who still like her father, the campaign should present "Michelle and her family in rural settings with rural-oriented imagery." There also are plans for events with farmers and gun owners, whom the memo describes as "validators." Said Lake, "That makes it awfully easy for us to say, 'Look, she doesn't really care about you. She's just using you.'"
Democrats have identified Nunn as perhaps their best opportunity to pick up a seat and frustrate the GOP's push for a Senate majority. Republicans need six more senators to run the chamber, and they acknowledge the importance of holding retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss's seat. At the least, Nunn supporters concede that the leak is an unwelcomed bump for a candidate with little-to-no margin for error in a state Obama lost twice.
Several Democrats were reluctant to discuss the memos or their fallout publicly but noted that many of the portions Republicans have been most gleeful over are simply the Nunn campaign predicting Republican lines of attack. They argue there's no difference in the effectiveness — or lack thereof — of an ad attacking Nunn as a "too liberal for Georgia" versus one that suggests "Michelle Nunn's own campaign says she's too liberal for Georgia."
McElhannon conceded that the latter interpretation takes liberties with the document. "But it won't matter whether that fairly represents what her consultants actually said," McElhannon argued. "Everyone in this business is a used-car salesman to some degree."
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