The Democratic Party is looking to expand its Senate map in a GOP stronghold — the Deep South.
To carry the torch in Georgia, Democrats have recruited Michelle Nunn, a never-before candidate with a strong family legacy in Georgia politics. Her father former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., retired in 1996, but still holds a 56 percent approval rating in the state. And a left-leaning Public Policy Polling survey out Tuesday shows Democrats may have a winner.
The Republicans have a crowded field seeking the GOP nomination, and as of now Nunn is either tied or ahead of all them. She leads Rep. Paul Broun, a medical doctor and conservative stalwart, 41 percent to 36 percent. She is neck and neck with Rep. Phil Gingrey, an ob-gyn who explained at a town hall in January that women who are raped have a harder time getting pregnant because of the stress of forcible sex. She is also tied with businessman David Perdue, the cousin of former GOP governor Sonny Perdue.
She has the edge on political outsider and Internet minister Derrick Grayson, a candidate opposed to foreign military intervention and the Federal Reserve, and Karen Handel, the former Susan G. Komen executive who resigned from her post in 2012 after she advocated slashing funding to Planned Parenthood. And against long-time Rep. Jack Kingston, she leads 40 percent to 38 percent.
"This confirms our internal polling, which shows Michelle Nunn's candidacy makes Georgia one of the most competitive Senate races in the country," says Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Nunn's experience as a CEO, career devoted to service, and deep working relationships with many Republicans in Georgia going back generations contrasts sharply with the right wing circus in the Republican Party."
Nunn led the nonprofit Points of Light for six years where Democrats point to her bipartisan work, crossing party lines and working closely with the Bush family, as proof of her work ethic.
Certainly demographics in Georgia are changing in the Democrats' favor. In 1996, white voters made up 78 percent of the electorate. In 2012, they made up just a little more than 60 percent. In the 2012 election, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the state by single digits — just 7.8 percent. The small margin of victory was second only to North Carolina, which Romney won by 2 percent. National Democrats didn't invest significant resources in the state in 2012, but that may be changing.
The DSCC sees Georgia as one of the most competitive seats in the country and one that could determine who controls the Senate after 2014.
But some say while Nunn will put up a strong fight, she may have jumped into the race too soon.
"I would be surprised if she won. The state is changing, but as I told her a few months ago, I thought it was premature for her to run," says Charles Bullock, a state political pundit and professor of political science at the University of Georgia. "My thought is that maybe in 2018, Democrats might have a stronger chance."
To win, Bullock says Nunn will need to not only win minority voters, but build a strong coalition of white women's support. She will also have to distance herself from the unpopular Obama administration.
Nunn doesn't have a voting record, which helps. But campaign finance records show she donated $2,000 to the president between 2008 and 2012. Nunn also defended pieces of the Affordable Care Act and has criticized the state's decision to decline the expansion of Medicaid, which she argues impacts 25,000 veterans in the state.
Bullock says Nunn's best hope is that Republicans beat each other up so badly in a primary and subsequent runoff election that she can emerge as a positive and unscathed alternative.
A decision to move the state's primary up to June will also give the two remaining Republican candidates more time to tarnish one another's records until the runoff, which will be held nine weeks later in August.