Michelle Nunn, Jason Carter hope to rechart the course of Georgia politics.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated an incorrect time frame for Jason Carter’s announcement of his campaign. It also had an incorrect status for Carter’s campaign Web site.

December 22, 2013

The two major parties here don’t agree on many things. One of them is that it is only a matter of time before Georgia goes from being a Republican stronghold to a state that is up for grabs.

In next year’s elections, Democrats will be looking to speed that process along with a couple of candidates who bring fresh faces and familiar names.

They are Senate contender Michelle Nunn, an executive who is also the daughter of former senator Sam Nunn, and gubernatorial hopeful Jason Carter, a third-term state senator who is a grandson of former president Jimmy Carter.

Nunn and Carter face tough odds, given that Georgia has not elected a non-incumbent Democrat to any statewide office since the waning years of the last century. But recent demographic shifts suggest a new electoral equation could be forming — and probably more quickly than in much-talked-about Texas.

The face of the state is being changed by an influx of African Americans and Latinos. Although whites accounted for 71 percent of Georgians who voted in the 2004 elections, that share had dropped by nearly 10 percentage points in 2012.

It’s not just the Kennedys and the Bushes – there are a lot of other political families, especially when it comes to the U.S. Senate. (Casey Capachi/In Play/The Washington Post)

Last year, President Obama’s reelection campaign pretty much ignored Georgia, but he still got more than 45 percent of the vote. Of the states that Obama lost to Republican Mitt Romney, Georgia had the second-narrowest margin, behind battleground North Carolina.

Democrats say all they need now is more money, better organization and the right names on the ballot — the last of which they believe they have found in Nunn and Carter, who present themselves as affable consensus-builders willing to reach across party lines.

“Everybody said it could happen by 2018, but because of these two candidates and the excitement they bring, we’re going to do it in 2014,” said DuBose Porter, who took over in August as chairman of the troubled and underfunded Georgia Democratic Party.

Republicans see the same tectonic shifts at work, though they say the timeline is longer.

“In five or six or seven years, this will be a swing state, a real battleground. It will probably be the next Virginia or North Carolina,” GOP strategist Paul Bennecke said. “Our party, for longevity purposes, has to figure out a way to reach out.”

At a minimum, the prospect of Nunn and Carter on the ticket — both are expected to win nomination easily — has given Georgia Democrats a jolt of energy, enthusiasm and fundraising potential they have lacked in recent years. The state party raised $150,000 at a Nov. 20 luncheon in downtown Atlanta, at which Nunn and Carter were featured speakers.

Nunn collected an attention-getting $1.7 million in the first 10 weeks after announcing her candidacy in July. The money came from more than 6,700 individual donors, including some prominent contributors who normally give to Republicans.

Last month, former senator John W. Warner (R-Va.) attended a fundraiser for Nunn; his political action committee contributed $500 to her campaign.

Georgia is one of only two states where, at this point, Democrats have even plausible hopes of taking a Senate seat from Republicans in 2014. The other place where they are playing offense is Kentucky, against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

A centrist approach

Thus far, Nunn has taken a cautious, centrist approach. She says, for example, that she supports the Affordable Care Act but that she also agrees with Georgia’s junior Republican senator, Johnny Isakson, that penalties against individuals who fail to buy insurance should be delayed until the law is working smoothly.

“People are ready for some new leadership and new perspectives and qualities of leadership that are in short supply in Washington,” Nunn said in an interview. “That includes somebody who is a problem-solver and who brings civility and a spirit of collaboration and who is focused on getting things done. Georgia’s state motto is ‘wisdom, justice, moderation.’ ”

Of course, dynastic appeals such as Nunn and Carter represent, are nothing new in politics. The current U.S. Senate roster, for example, includes such political brand names as Begich, Casey, Landrieu, Murkowski, Paul, Pryor, Rockefeller and Udall (twice).

A famous political name means that “there will be some people who will be closed to us, and there will be a great number of people who will give us a second look because of it,” Carter said in an interview. “But at the end of the day, all you get is a second look.”

Although Nunn’s father is fondly remembered as a brainy and independent-minded senator, his name has not been on the ballot in Georgia since 1990. Michelle Nunn is running as a sort of anti-politician with a story of her own to tell as a founder and now the head of the nation’s largest organization devoted to volunteer service.

Among Georgia voters, however, she is still largely unknown.

Carl Fambro, 57, a Macon restaurant owner, recalls voting for Sam Nunn because the senator was a strong supporter of the military. “I didn’t know his daughter was interested in politics. I didn’t even know he had a daughter,” Fambro said.

Fambro and about a half-dozen other local busi­ness­peo­ple met with Michelle Nunn on Thursday morning around a table at his Francar’s Buffalo Wings restaurant. It was a low-key event, and Nunn mostly listened, jotting down their concerns and observations — about taxes, health care, burdensome regulations, difficulties obtaining loans — in a three-ring notebook.

Nunn didn’t even mention her Senate race until the session was almost over.

“I kind of like her. She seems energetic, friendly, really interested in what we had to say,” Fambro said afterward. “I’m sold.”

At least as important as anything Nunn brings to the race, she also stands to benefit from the disarray on the other side of the ballot. There are currently more than a half-dozen Republicans vying to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a situation that promises a bruising, expensive primary and almost certainly a runoff.

Establishment Republicans worry that Nunn could have an opening, should the party nominate one of the more-far-right contenders, such as Rep. Paul Broun, who has described evolution, embryology and the big-bang theory as “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”

“If she could get to run against him, he could be the Todd Akin of 2014,” said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, referring to the Missouri 2012 Senate nominee, who lost what Republicans considered a likely pickup seat after he suggested that women could not get pregnant from “legitimate rape.”

Speaking of which, another GOP Senate contender in Georgia — Rep. Phil Gingrey, an obstetrician-gynecologist— revived that controversy this year when he said Akin had been “partly right” about rape.

A steeper climb

Jason Carter’s route to victory is even steeper than Nunn’s, given that he is challenging an incumbent, Gov. Nathan Deal. Carter announced that he is running on Nov. 7. An early test of his viability will be the fundraising numbers he produces at the end of December.

The state senator, 38, portrays himself as pragmatic, even on the ideologically fraught question of whether the state should accept federal funds to expand its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.

“The current governor has decided to import all that Washington politics into our health-care system,” Carter said in an interview. “Our federal tax dollars are going to expand and improve health care in New Jersey and Florida and other places with Republican governors, and Georgia is not getting those benefits. And that’s because the governor is just consumed by the Washington politics of Obamacare.”

Given his grandfather’ continued activism, Carter acknowledges that the former president’s name is likely to have little crossover appeal to staunch Republicans.

Just last month, the state senator emphasized his differences with his grandfather when Jimmy Carter called for an end to capital punishment. The younger Carter said he supports the death penalty in cases of “heinous crimes, and that won’t change when I’m governor.”

Jason Carter also noted that he has an A-rating from the National Rifle Association, an organization that the former president has criticized.

“Some super-partisan people will never vote for me, because I’m Jimmy Carter’s grandson, and that will be a barrier,” Carter said. “The vast majority of people think of him as I do, as a good person who has lived his life based on his faith.”

But Carter also insisted that the time is right, for himself and Nunn.

“This was the state that is sort of next in line as a national battleground, so we’ve got that to build on from a Democratic base standpoint,” he said. “It is a path that is going to require both me and Michelle to do what we’ve done in our lives, to reach out to independents and Republicans of all kinds and demonstrate that we can provide the kind of leadership the state needs.”

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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