Republicans are on the offensive in the opening days of Georgia's general election Senate campaign, hammering Democrat Michelle Nunn as a rubber stamp for President Barack Obama and questioning her resume as a nonprofit executive — the very experience that anchors her appeal as a moderate who gets things done without partisan wrangling.
It's a preview of a high-profile clash between two first-time candidates — Nunn, 47, and former corporate executive David Perdue, 64 — with the outcome helping to decide which party controls the Senate for the final two years of Obama's presidency.
Nunn is one of the Democrats' only hopes to pick up a GOP-held seat as they try both to hold their majority and establish Georgia as another Southern swing state alongside Virginia and North Carolina. Republicans need six more seats to run the chamber and know they can't afford to let Nunn succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. There's also a little-known Libertarian on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Both sides agree that with no sitting politician left in the race, Nunn and Perdue will battle over personalities and backgrounds as they try to capitalize on voter discontent. They're also both tweaking some of their rhetoric, as they each try to energize their core partisan supporters even as Nunn especially focuses on independents.
Perdue now sounds a more partisan tone after spending months blasting Rep. Jack Kingston and two other sitting congressmen as being part of the problem in Washington. Fresh off defeating Kingston in a primary runoff, Perdue promised to "prosecute the failed record of the Democratic administration over the last six years and she's going to have to own up to that."
He urged Georgia voters not to give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "one more vote" in the chamber and called for the complete repeal of Obama's health care law and the Dodd-Frank law that changed financial regulations after the 2008 market collapse. Earlier in the year, Perdue said he wanted to work with Democrats to amend Dodd-Frank, not repeal it. And as a business executive, he once said that it would take a federal solution to reduce the number of uninsured Americans.
Meanwhile, a conservative Super PAC launched a television ad telling voters that Nunn supports "Obamacare." The ad also notes that she presided over layoffs when one of her earlier foundations merged with former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light organization. Ending Spending Action Fund, the conservative political action committee, is backed by Joe Ricketts, founder of TDAmeritrade and owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball franchise.
Nunn uses those attacks to tie Perdue to her usual critique that "our political system is broken."
Even more pointedly, Perdue dismissed Nunn's experience running Points of Light. Perdue argues that her post at the foundation — as opposed to his positions at for-profit firms like Reebok, Dollar General, and the failed textile firm Pillowtex — "does not prepare you ... to deal with issues we have in a free-enterprise system."
He added, "I want to focus on why my background is more appropriate to lead in the Senate in regard to bringing economic and free-enterprise solutions to fix the problems that we have with the economy today."
Nunn has embraced the comparisons of executive experience, echoing attacks Perdue weathered from his Republican rivals who lambasted him for presiding over layoffs and outsourcing jobs overseas. "My record, obviously, is around building communities, lifting people up, trying to make a difference, working in collaboration with folks from the other side," said Nunn, whose father, Sam, represented Georgia in the Senate for 24 years.
Having to defend immediately part of her principle argument is just one barrier in Nunn's bid for an upset. She already had to run in a state Obama lost twice — even if by much closer margins than the rest of the Deep South — and where he remains unpopular among white voters who still make up about 60 percent of the electorate. And now Perdue's victory over Kingston takes away her opportunity to continue her "outsider" campaign against an 11-term congressman.
Nunn treads lightly on her party affiliation. Her ads don't mention she's a Democrat. She talks repeatedly of "moderation," noting the word is part of the Georgia state motto: "Wisdom Justice Moderation." Yet she also talked more specifically this week about the details of "common-sense" immigration reform, which she said should include both tighter border security — a favorite Republican component — and a "pathway to citizenship over time" for people already here illegally, a nod to liberals she has often avoided.
Democrats say Nunn can succeed with a campaign that mixes her arguments about Washington's ineffectiveness with direct attacks on Perdue's record.
At the Democrats' national Senate campaign office, spokesman Justin Barasky skewered Perdue for "a record of tearing apart companies and communities by slashing thousands of jobs." Georgia Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter compared Perdue to Mitt Romney, whose wealth — and comments about it — became a liability for the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
Perdue said that doesn't worry him: "Well, I have lived through about six months of that. How'd that work?"
Porter also maintained that Nunn's father helps insulate her from Obama-related broadsides. An old-guard Southern Democrat who doesn't fit neatly into an ideological box, Nunn's 75-year-old father remains popular among voters old enough to remember his tenure, which ended with his 1997 retirement. She references Sam Nunn often. "He's already given me two phone calls worth of counsel this morning," she joked at a stop the day after Perdue's runoff victory.
Chip Lake, a Republican campaign consultant in Georgia, said Republicans know that Nunn is a strong candidate and that they certainly respect her father. But, he added, Perdue still has the better hand: "With Georgia being a red state there is nothing that brings Republicans and the tea party together more than Barack Obama."
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