TOPICS > Politics > Election 2014

Two newcomers vie for Georgia’s open Senate seat

October 21, 2014 at 8:39 PM EDT
In Georgia, the race for an open Senate seat is dividing voters between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn. Both seek to distance themselves from President Obama’s policies while gathering support from white and African-American voters who often diverge on party lines. Judy Woodruff reports the southern voter mindset from Atlanta.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And exactly two weeks from Election Day, and Georgia is a surprise place Democrats are suddenly hopeful about.

The two major-party candidates running for the open Senate seat are first-time candidates, but both come from well-known political families.

This weekend, I traveled to the Peach State to find out how a race between two non-politicians has become a nail-biter.

Worshipers at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta were fired up on Sunday, determined to make their voices heard.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, (D) Georgia: So, we have got to go out and vote like we have never voted before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was the sort of stars-of-the-civil-rights-movement turnout you would expect in a presidential election year, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister, Christine, arm in arm with Congressman John Lewis, leading the way at a large get-out-the-vote drive called Souls to the Polls.

But it’s not a presidential election year, and the first African-American president, Barack Obama, is not on the ballot, except in TV spots being aired by most Republican Senate candidates this year, including David Perdue here in Georgia.

Perdue campaign ad: Job losses come from bad policies in Washington, the policies of President Obama and Michelle Nunn. The president himself said, make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Perdue, a 64-year-old former corporate executive and first-time candidate, is trying to take advantage of President Obama’s unpopularity with most Georgia voters by saying his Democratic opponent, Michelle Nunn, would be a rubber stamp for Obama policies.

ERIN KRENZ:  Would that be Michelle Nunn or David Perdue that would get your support there?

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an argument that Perdue supporters, like 31-year-old massage therapist and mother of three Erin Krenz, who regularly volunteers to make calls and knock on doors for him, enthusiastically embraces.

ERIN KRENZ: Because there are so many bad policies coming out of Washington that are going to kill all of the jobs, that are killing jobs right now. There are small business owners that are trying to put their heads together, figuring out, how am I going to surmount this Obamacare thing?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the 47-year-old Nunn, daughter of former four-term Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, has spent her adult life running large nonprofit volunteer service organizations.

She has focused her campaign on how she wants to be a voice for moderation in Washington, someone who will work with both political parties to get things done.

I spoke to her after she greeted people at the Morehouse College homecoming tailgate parties.

MICHELLE NUNN, Democratic Senate Candidate: I am going to work across party lines. But there are places where I differ from the president. I believe that we should have already moved forward with the Keystone pipeline. I believe that the president and the Congress should have done more to address our long-term debt.

But I also do agree with the president that we should raise minimum wage, that we should pass pay equity legislation, that we should pass bipartisan immigration reform.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michelle Nunn has had to walk a careful line in this campaign. She’s had to appeal to white voters, who have lately been voting mostly for Republicans in Georgia, but not in a way that turns off black voters, whom she needs to show up in record-breaking numbers for a midterm election.

(SINGING)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Those we spoke to say they understand the balance she must strike. Valerie Dorsey rode the Souls to the Polls bus on Sunday to cast her vote.

VALERIE DORSEY: I don’t think in our politics that it’s necessary to absolutely support the president in 100 percent of all his policies. But if you’re able to reason, if you’re able to be willing to be educated about the issues, and try to find common ground, I believe that Michelle Nunn will try to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Emory University political scientist Merle Black:

MERLE BLACK, Emory University: She’s got to get — do two things, according to her own strategy. She’s got to get a composition of the electorate in which African-Americans make up 30 percent of the voters. Barack Obama got 98 percent of that vote in ’08 and still lost by four or five points. But what’s the other target?  The other target is white voters. The Democrats need at least 30 percent of the white vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Black says this is a tall order for Nunn, but he believes she can pull it off. He argues that’s because she’s run a strong campaign, while Perdue has run a weak one, since he won the Republican primary.

MERLE BLACK: But he’s not doing the number one thing that we think an unknown politician needs to do, and that is to advertise himself, show his stuff, get out there debate and engage. He doesn’t do that right now, so this has given a tremendous opportunity for the Michelle Nunn campaign to paint their portrait of David Perdue. And that’s a very, very unattractive portrait.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Merle Black says Nunn is trying to appeal to white voters, particularly women, by saying Perdue has made a career out of outsourcing jobs to other countries.

NARRATOR: The attorney asks, “Can you describe your experience with outsourcing?”  Perdue responds: “Yes, I spent most of my career doing that.”

MAN: And when asked by reporters how he defends the outsourcing, Perdue doubled down.

DAVID PERDUE: Defend it?  I’m proud of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Perdue was unavailable for an interview while we were in Georgia, but his cousin, former Governor Sonny Perdue, speaking on his behalf, insists Nunn has taken those remarks out of context.

FORMER GOV. SONNY PERDUE, (R) Georgia: When David said that, it was in a legal document. And what has David talked about is, that is what corporate America was about. It may be outsourcing to a small business next door that can do that particular task more efficiently than a big corporation can do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He says Georgia voters want someone to go to Washington to undo Obama policies.

SONNY PERDUE: This is essentially a national election about the policies of this current administration and who will support those and then who will repudiate those in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both the Nunn and Perdue families come from Houston County in rural Central Georgia. We found that voters here and nearby are as divided as across the rest of the state.

Don Wood will likely vote for Nunn because he worries Perdue is too partisan.

DON WOOD: He’s not going to be able to do anything to help fix the problems that are there, because you at least have to be able to talk and get along with the people for something to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Terri Marcum says she likes a candidate who stands firm.

TERRI MARCUM: Sticks to principles and sticks to the conservative. I’m a very conservative person, and so I really kind of like the conservative way of thinking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To keep her distance from Washington, Nunn rarely uses the word Democrat, refers to herself as a moderate.

But there’s no question that you would, the majority of the time, be voting with the Democrats in the Senate?

MICHELLE NUNN: I spent 26 years mobilizing volunteers and solving problems. My lens for this race and for service is to get things done that matter to people. It’s not from a partisan lens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In these final weeks, both the Nunn and Perdue camps are spending millions of dollars airing TV spots and getting out their vote. She’s helped by a new infusion from national Democrats, who praise her for keeping the race competitive, and Perdue with help from national Republicans, worried at the closeness of a contest they thought they could count on.

But political scientist Merle Black notes neither party has a majority in Georgia. He argues even if Perdue captures the Republican base, he has another hurdle to jump.

MERLE BLACK: When the Republicans have been doing well, it’s because they have been carrying very large majorities among the independents. Currently, in these polls, Perdue is not achieving that degree of success with these independents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Perdue’s cousin, the former governor, acknowledges the steadily rising percentage of African-Americans and other minorities in Georgia does make Republicans’ job harder.

SONNY PERDUE: I think that’s part of maybe why the race appears to be tightening. I don’t think that we believe the race is as tight as current media is portraying it to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Complicating matters for both is the libertarian candidate, who polls show is drawing around 3 percent of the vote, enough to deny either Nunn or Perdue the 50 percent Georgia law mandates.

A runoff would be in January, requiring both to turn out their supporters all over again.

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