The highly competitive Georgia Senate race may determine the partisan balance in the Senate for the next two years. With the Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss retiring out of frustration with a divided Congress, Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn are facing off in what has become a very close race in the last few weeks. The potential for a runoff adds an extra measure of excitement to this race. Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford has consistently been polling with enough votes to prevent either major party candidate from garnering enough votes to break the 50% mark. If neither candidate garners more than half the vote, the state will go into a runoff on January 6, a full three days after the 114th Congress is sworn in.
Neither major party candidate has held public office, but both benefit from strong name recognition thanks to politically prominent relatives. Michelle Nunn’s father, Sam Nunn, was a popular Democratic senator from Georgia from the 1970s through the 1990s. David Perdue’s cousin, Republican Sonny Perdue, was Georgia’s governor from 2003 through 2011. Both also have successful backgrounds: Nunn worked as an executive for the volunteer service organizations HandsOn Network and Points of Light, resulting in significant cooperation with the Bush family. Perdue served as a business executive and consultant for a number of major national and international corporations, a role that has come under fire in the current election.
Nunn’s competitiveness is impressive, as Georgia has leaned Republican for at least a decade. The last Democratic senator to be elected from the state, Zell Miller, took office in 2000, and the state has chosen the Republican candidate for president in every election since 1996. In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney carried the state with 53% of the vote to President Barack Obama’s 45%. However the state, like many, is geographically divided: Democrats hold five of the fourteen seats in the House of Representatives, along with sixty of the 180 seats in the State House and eighteen of fifty-six seats in the State Senate. If Nunn can motivate those strongly Democratic areas and deter many of the Republican majority, she may be able to muster enough support to win, but the partisan advantage goes to Perdue.
Two crucial issues have emerged in the media coverage surrounding the election: Michelle Nunn’s perceived ties to the national Democratic Party and David Perdue’s business career. Nunn is running as a moderate, stressing her nonpartisan career in public service while avoiding potentially inflammatory issue stances. This is a crucial strategic move, as Perdue is trying his hardest to tie Nunn to President Obama, whose flagging approval rating looks even more dismal in a Republican-majority state. His campaign has produced numerous horror-tinged ads conflating the two politicians, often overlaying their pictures captioned with a now infamous Nunn quote: “I defer to the President’s judgment.” If Perdue can effectively equate Nunn with President Obama, he may be able to incite the Republican electorate to turn out on in greater numbers on election day, and perhaps deter undecided voters.
Perdue’s biggest liability is his business career. He has built his political campaign on his image as a political outsider who can bring his business acumen to bear on the national debt and other major issues. Unfortunately for him, during his career he brought that business acumen to bear on failing companies and was responsible for outsourcing numerous jobs. Nunn picked up on this relatively early in the campaign, releasing an ad in August attacking him for his role in the collapse of textile manufacturer Pillowtex. In early October, the discovery of a deposition emphasizing Perdue’s role in outsourcing jobs and his response claiming that he was “proud” of his role attracted heavy media coverage and several attack ads by the Nunn campaign. The impact of the issue is unclear, however polling shows Nunn’s vote share has risen significantly since the issue broke. More convincingly, a New York Times poll examining potential voters found that either more black voters or fewer white voters are likely to vote following the outsourcing gaffe. This shift will surely benefit Nunn as black voters are substantially more likely than white voters to vote for her Ultimately, the exact impact of the controversy is unknown, but at the moment it is the most salient issue likely to be affecting Perdue’s vote share.
Even with all of these factors in play, the election is a toss-up. The candidates are polling within a few percentage points of one another, alternately taking the lead. The race will become even murkier if it goes to a runoff. The extra two months of campaigning and the likely massive inflow of funds and interest from national groups could disrupt any established leads. However, two factors would give Perdue a significant advantage: lower turnout among Democrats and the support of former Amanda Swafford voters. While the general election is a toss-up, a runoff would likely give Perdue the advantage.
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