by Charlie Harper
Last week, Michelle Nunn made the worst kept secret in Georgia politics official. She will be a candidate for the US Senate. In reality for Georgia Democrats, she will be THE candidate for Georgia Senate despite the three other announced candidates who also wish their party’s nomination. Unlike the Georgia GOP that have seven announced candidates and four or five potential contenders, institutional Democrats appear to have no appetite for a divisive primary. Nunn is their one.
The Democrats wasted no time as labeling her a centrist, with progressive Democrats seeking out social media to brand her as such at the same time the Georgia GOP was dispatching press releases declaring her “out-of-touch” with Georgia values and convictions. And thus, before the primary has even officially begun, the preview of a general election campaign has been signaled. There will be a fight for “the middle” in Georgia politics.
The Democratic Party of Georgia, barely a decade removed from majority status, has been reduced to a party that seems to represent little more than urban Atlanta and pockets of Southwest Georgia. Gone are the days when Democratic partisans refused to identify with their national brethren. Despite the well-publicized purity efforts that regularly occur within GOP intramural exercises, Democratic activists – a much younger and nationally focused group than those who ran the party during the last days of their majority – now not only openly embrace the initiatives of the national party but expect others within their ranks to do the same.
For those that wish to take issue with the above statement, contrast former Governor Barnes “scheduling conflict” when President Obama visited during the 2010 campaign with these activists demands to get Congressman David Scott and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on record regarding gay marriage the day the President announced that he had “evolved” on the issue. Georgia Democrats have recently been as unwilling to allow their own to position themselves as needed to remain viable in general elections as their Republican counterparts. They just haven’t had as many of them to do that with.
Nunn, of course, is the daughter of the man that the entire DPG used to identify with as a reason why Democrats wouldn’t switch to the Republican party. “I’m a Sam Nunn Democrat” had a unique and specific meaning. It meant “I’m a Georgia (and mostly conservative) Democrat, not one of those Kennedy-like national Democrats”. And yet, days before her announcement, she shared a stage with President Obama – and President George H. W. Bush – to commemorate the 5,000th “Daily Point of Light” award from the Points of Light Foundation, an Atlanta based group of which she is the CEO.
The social media buzz following her announcement demonstrated that even progressive democrats cede that Nunn must be viewed as a candidate that will appeal to those voters that kept her Father and many other Democrats in power well after demographics said Georgia should be Republican. Meanwhile, the GOP has signaled they will seek to brand her as someone far from the middle.
But where the middle is in this race is much more complicated than how a relatively unknown person who is now the Democrats statewide standard bearer is viewed and branded. It also has a lot to do with which of the seven candidates Republicans choose to nominate. Democrats clearly have their sights set on a battle with Congressman Paul Broun, whose views of evolution as “lies from the pit of hell” will go a long way to making the CEO of a George H. W. Bush inspired charity look downright reasonable by comparison to a wide swath of general election Georgia voters.
GOP leaders, meanwhile, understand that these voters don’t generally participate in – much less decide – primaries. Thus, the success of Nunn in helping re-establish Democrats as a viable statewide party likely has a lot less to do with the efforts of Nunn, and a lot more with what Republicans decide to do with their nomination.
For years, the mantra in GOP circles is that you cannot be conservative enough. Now that there is a clear and telegraphed battle for the middle, Republican leaders and grass roots workers will have to make a calculated assessment when they choose their nominee. Will they take the risk to find the nominee that appeals most to what their inner wants and needs desire? Or, will enough fear creep into their consciousness to allow for a little bit of pragmatism to choose the most conservative candidate that can win a general election?
This, as of now, is the central question that GOP voters will have to answer for themselves between now and next June’s primary. The answer will likely determine, in effect, just how close or far away from the middle Michelle Nunn actually is.