ATLANTA — If there’s a formula for winning as a Democrat in Georgia, Michelle Nunn thinks she’s found it: Don't sound like a liberal, hold your Republican friends close, and never leave a loose end hanging.
The 47-year-old daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn is running as an earnest, pro-business centrist in a solidly red state, drawing national attention and raising millions of dollars.
For Democrats, she represents the strongest opportunity to capture a Senate seat that Republicans have held for the last decade. The most recent poll has her tied or leading all of her potential opponents.
Much is riding on her candidacy: If Nunn can use her famous name, middle-of-the-road message, and campaign discipline to turn Georgia purple, Senate Democrats are much more likely to hold onto their slim majority in a tough election year.
Republicans insist Georgia voters are conservative to the core and won’t be fooled by a candidate who’s already entered the embrace of Washington Democrats. Nunn, who’s never run for office before, is taking little for granted.
Volunteering at an Atlanta food bank before Christmas, Nunn carried out her role meticulously, squinting at the expiration date on the bottom of every can she sorted through.
She zeroed in on every stranger she passed, greeting them warmly with a handshake. She stood at attention with her hands behind her back, leaning in as employees described the intricacies of food distribution. After the event, she tried to make good on a promise of donuts for her children, aged nine and 11, in exchange for coming along, striding over to the family car as it was leaving the parking lot.
With her wire-rimmed glasses, slight frame, and unassuming air, Nunn projects a sober, bookish sense of purpose. Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore, who worked for Nunn’s father, recalls accompanying the family to a conference in New Orleans while Michelle was still in her 20s. He asked Michelle's mother what her daughter might like to do while they were there.
"Michelle?” Colleen Nunn said. “Michelle doesn't like to have fun."
Georgia Democrats had pleaded with Nunn to run for office for years, wringing their hands as the state turned deep red. Since 2010, Republicans have held every major statewide office in Georgia—the first time they've done so since Reconstruction—and many residents are skeptical that change is coming any time soon.
But the state's shifting demographics could tip that balance as more African-Americans have returned to the South and the immigrant population has grown in recent years. That's prompted another Georgia Democrat with a famous last name—Jason Carter—to jump into the governor's race. But right now, Democrats in Georgia and Washington alike believe that Nunn is their best shot at a comeback.
Born in Perry, Georgia, where her grandfather was once mayor, Nunn spent most of her childhood in the suburbs of Washington D.C. while her father served in Congress. After graduating from the University of Virginia, she became what she now calls the "glorified intern-slash-executive director" of Hands On Atlanta, a fledging volunteer service group. In 2001, she received a Master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School and married Ron Martin, who works in real estate.
Nunn’s non-profit ultimately became a national organization that merged in 2007 with former president George H.W. Bush's service organization to form the Points of Light Foundation. It bills itself as the world's largest volunteer service organization. Her entire Senate campaign is riding on the bet that voters are yearning for buttoned-down sobriety to counter Washington's partisan bickering. "The Georgia state motto is 'Wisdom, Justice, Moderation,' and I feel like those are the values that Georgians are looking for," she says.
With that in mind, Nunn describes herself as the worthy successor to both retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, whose seat she seeks, and her famous father—a conservative, hawkish Democrat who's still widely venerated in Georgia.
"[My father] can't remember a single bill he was involved in that didn't have bipartisan support and Republican co-sponsors," she explains. He offered the same message during a Friday appearance on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports.
Nunn’s own ties to Republicans are steeped in her leadership as CEO of Points of Light. The Bush family hasn’t waded into the race and declined to comment for this story. But the non-profit, whose board of directors is led by former president George W. Bush’s brother Neil, has given Nunn a built-in network of Republicans.
Jim Geiger, an Atlanta businessman who donated to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, is backing Nunn. He served on the board of her old non-profit and said Nunn’s work with Points of Light "harkens back to a day when Sam Nunn was in Senate, H.W. was vice-president, and life seemed like it was less toxic." Geiger, who plans to host a fundraiser for the Nunn campaign, added: "I'm not particularly happy where the Republican Party is today."
Such sentiments have helped fill Nunn's coffers in the early months of the race. Her campaign has raised $3.3 million so far with $1.6 million coming in the fourth quarter of 2013. Her donors have also included some political heavyweights: Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia has chipped in, along with former GOP Sen. John Warner (no relation). Former Sen. Dick Lugar, one of Sam Nunn’s closest friends in the Senate, kicked in more through his political action committee. The Indiana Republican lost his seat in 2012 to a tea party challenger.
The Nunn campaign has made no secret of its excitement about such backers. "We need more leaders like Senator Lugar—not less, and I will strive to follow this legacy in the U.S. Senate," Nunn said after the donation became public. News clippings aside, her campaign website makes no mention of the fact that she's a Democrat.
Nunn's opponents say her middle-of-the-road bipartisan message is just a ruse: Once she gets to Washington, she'll take marching orders from President Obama and the Democratic leadership, they insist.
Michael McNeely, first vice-chair of the Georgia Republican Party, sought to make an issue of that fact that Nunn attended a Democratic Senate Campaign Committee fundraiser with Obama in May right before she decided to run. "It sounds good to say as the candidate that you're independent from your party. But you still have to respond to the party you're a part of and the president," he says
Brook Hougesen, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, calls her "a Harry Reid protégé" who's simply trying to ride her father's coattails into Congress. "It doesn't take much to be able to fund raise when Nunn has her father's Rolodex. But make no mistake—Michelle Nunn is no Sam Nunn," he says.
Supporters acknowledge that Nunn is not a conservative southern Democrat of yore. "The question that comes up is, 'Is she more liberal than her old man?' I think the answer is yes. But certainly the Georgia Democratic Party is too," said Kilgore, a long-time friend of Michelle's. "He self-identified as a conservative, not as a moderate or centrist. That kind of Democrat barely exists in the state anymore."
Kilgore still believes she is a natural dealmaker, and Nunn herself insists that her professional track record proves she's willing and able to extend a hand to Republicans. But of all policy issues, volunteer service may be among the least controversial and most anodyne—the thing that most everyone can agree upon.
The 2014 political landscape is a minefield for red-state Democrats like Nunn. Obamacare is the ultimate test of her determination to run as a no-nonsense, above-the-fray independent.
Nunn is quick to point out that she was "one of the first people to come out" for a delay of the individual mandate after problems emerged with the website. When asked whether Obamacare can ultimately succeed, she neither defends nor attacks the law wholesale, declining to cast judgment on it one way or the other.
"My focus has been on what we can do to actually fix this. We need to make health care work for Americans, and we need to do whatever it is to do that.” But she believes Georgia should embrace Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, which the GOP governor turned down.
Like her father, Nunn considers herself a deficit hawk and says Democrats haven't been flexible enough on entitlement reform. She personally supports gay marriage but agrees with the Supreme Court that the definition of marriage should be left to the states. Endorsed by the pro-choice EMILY's List, Nunn has said abortion should be "safe, legal and rare and that women should be ultimately able to make this very difficult personal decision in concert with their doctor and their family."
And when she openly sides with Democrats, she's careful to couch her support in terms that conservative voters might find palatable: No additional food stamp cuts—but tackling hunger will require "public-private partnerships," not just federal money. Sequestration is terrible, she argues, and then points to the damage it has done to Robins Air Force Base. The shutdown was wrong, and she blames all sides for the dysfunction in Washington.
"I think both parties have some responsibility for the partisan gridlock, so we need people who are interested in finding common ground," she concludes.
The Nunn campaign is hoping that her measured tone will draw a sharp contrast with her eventual Republican opposition.
The Senate primary is set for May 20, and the GOP field is already crowded with contenders. In addition to former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who’s considered the moderate choice, the field also includes staunch conservatives.
Among them are Rep. Paul Broun, who recently said the only way Georgia would turn purple is if “illegal aliens” had to the right to vote, and Rep. Phil Gingrey, who said Todd Akin was “partly right” in his infamous claim about “legitimate rape.” Rep. Jack Kingston recently suggested that low-income students should sweep floors in exchange for receiving free school lunches.
"There are a couple of them I add to my prayers will be the nominee," says DuBose Porter, chair of the Georgia Democratic Party. An August poll from Public Policy Polling showed Nunn tied or leading all her potential opponents, though with only 40 to 42% of the vote. But despite her famous name, Nunn remains unknown to most voters: A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed 51 percent of voters either hadn't heard Nunn or didn't know enough about her to say whether they approved of her.
For now, Nunn is focused on mustering a base of support and reviving flagging hopes for her party. Ever cautious, she takes care not to point fingers when asked about Georgia Democrats' time in the wilderness.
"I think that the pendulum switches back and forth in political life, and that's the natural ebb and flow," she says.