By Laura Litvan
Signs of the Republican Party rift between business and the Tea Party are showing up where Democrats most want to see them: in the campaign account of Michelle Nunn, daughter of four-term Georgia Senator Sam Nunn.
“The vast majority of Americans say they don’t want the government to shut down, they want middle ground,” said John Wieland, founder of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods Inc., who together with his wife penned checks totaling $10,400 to Nunn’s Democratic U.S. Senate bid. In the 2010 midterms, the Wielands each gave $4,800 to the Republican Senate candidate.
“Michelle understands that middle ground, and that’s why we wrote the checks,” Wieland said.
It’s a sentiment shared by some business donors from Virginia to Arkansas, and one Democrats want to spread as the parties vie for control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms.
Nunn, 46, is running for the seat of retiring Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, and her opponent has yet to be determined. Eight Republicans are competing in a June 3 primary, including three U.S. House members who supported the ill-fated plan to link defunding Obamacare to lifting the debt ceiling and passing a government spending bill. Their efforts led to a 16-day shutdown that Standard & Poor’s estimated cost the U.S. economy $24 billion.
In addition to Wieland, Nunn’s donors include Jim Cox Kennedy, the chairman of Atlanta-based communications company Cox Enterprises Inc., who contributed $2,600 to her candidacy, after giving $30,800 to the Republican National Committee and $5,000 to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
She’s also got support from Tom Cousins, former chief executive officer of Cousins Properties Inc. (CUZ) and a developer who helped shape downtown Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s, who has given her $5,200. Cousins donated $50,800 to the RNC and $5,000 to Romney. Both Kennedy and Cousins declined to comment on their donations.
The financial push-back by the business community against the small-government Tea Party movement extends to Virginia, where Republican businessmen are cutting checks and commercials to support Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the governor’s race rather than state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican Tea-Party favorite.
In Arkansas, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is facing U.S. Representative Tom Cotton, a House Republican who voted against opening the government and a five-year farm bill. Pryor is highlighting both votes to draw donations from the agriculture community and other boardrooms.
As of June 30, when the farm bill was being debated and the shutdown had yet to occur, Pryor had raised $89,750 from the crop production and basic processing industry, compared with $16,750 that went to his opponent.
Cotton’s biggest donor was Club for Growth, a Tea-Party aligned group, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political giving.
The shifting partisan allegiances, even if temporary, are significant because Republicans are seeking to capture a net of six seats in next year’s elections to regain a majority in the Senate. Holding their Georgia seat and defeating Pryor are vital components of their plan, both of which will be more difficult if a sizable number of the party’s corporate backers give both their money and their votes to Democrats.
Nunn’s race is among the marquee contests because it presents a rare opportunity for the Democrats to take away a seat from their partisan adversaries.
“It’s big, and Michelle Nunn is particularly well positioned because she’s already raised money from business for years for the Points of Light Foundation,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “She’s a known quantity to them, which helps.”
Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, dismissed the importance of the donations.
“Any candidate is going to have a few CEOs supporting them,” she said. “It’s not an extraordinary amount of support she’s getting.”
Nunn is tapping her political pedigree as scion of a pro-business Democrat and those corporate ties from serving as president of the Points of Light volunteer group founded by former Republican President George H.W. Bush to solicit cash.
Jim Geiger, chairman of the Atlanta-based telecommunications company Cbeyond Inc. (CBEY) and a self-described lifelong Republican, said his support for Nunn is based on his prior charitable work with her and a desire to see a bipartisan cluster of Senators who understand business priorities.
He’s hosting a fundraiser for Nunn later this year, and “since most of my friends, if not all of them, are Republicans, there will be a strong showing of Republican businessmen,” Geiger said.
Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons and co-founder of Home Depot Inc. (HD), has given $5,200. Blank has cut checks for candidates from both parties, including $3,000 in 2010 for Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
Nunn drew attention to the votes her opponents cast against the bipartisan debt-limit measure during an Oct. 28 campaign stop. While visiting Fort Benning Army Base in Columbus, Georgia, she talked with defense workers about the impact of the shutdown. Afterward, she issued a statement decrying the effect on the state’s economy.
“Instead of playing political games that hurt Georgia families, Congress needs to take a pragmatic approach to solving our nation’s fiscal challenges and reining in spending,” Nunn said. “That’s what I’ll do as Georgia’s senator.”
Jim Grien, the president of the investment bank TM Capital Corp. and Nunn’s campaign treasurer, said Nunn has “some very unique DNA” in politics and her family name raises her profile beyond those of the Republican House incumbents in the race.
Sam Nunn, 75, was chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and he built a reputation for breaking from his Democratic colleagues on tax increases and other issues. Her father also has worked with former Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar on nuclear nonproliferation, an endeavor that earned them Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
The Republican field in the race includes Representatives Paul Broun, Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey, all of whom voted against bipartisan legislation that opened the government and prevented a default on the nation’s debt, now $17 trillion.
Also running is David Perdue, the former chief executive officer of Dollar General Corp. (DG) and the cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue; and former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who resigned in 2012 as an executive at the Susan G. Komen foundation, a breast cancer charity, amid controversy over pulling funding from Planned Parenthood, which provides women’s health screenings and abortions.
Michelle Nunn, who joined the race in late July, raised $1.73 million by Sept. 30, bested only by Kingston, who has raised $3.35 million and Perdue, who has collected $1.81 million including a $500,000 personal loan and a $500,000 donation to his campaign.