ATLANTA -- Democrats in Georgia are finding themselves in an unfamiliar place this week: ahead in the polls.
With days to go until Election Day and early voting already under way, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn has clawed her way into an effective tie with Republican David Perdue, leading him in some recent surveys and trailing in others, each by a small margin. It’s an unexpected turn in an otherwise difficult year where Democrats are struggling even in bluer states like New Hampshire and Colorado.
It's a fragile position and the race will go to a January runoff if neither candidate breaks 50%, a scenario made likely thanks to the presence of Libertarian Amanda Swafford on the ballot, who could drain small pockets of support from both candidates. On the trail with Nunn, though, Democrats seemed delirious at even the possibility of a rare victory in a state where Republicans have dominated the last decade. At the Thumbs Up Diner in Atlanta, Nunn was showered with chants of “We want Nunn!” from the dozens of backers who packed inside and spilled out onto the street, most of them women. She stopped for a beaming selfie with a black middle-aged woman wearing a Nunn sticker on her cheek before moving further into the restaurant.
“A strong woman,” the stickered fan said as Nunn walked off. “That’s what we need.”
Nunn, who does not have a reputation for pizazz, responded to the crowd’s enthusiasm with a speech shouted at full volume.
“Y’all, we have how many more days?” Nunn asked. “We have eight days to make history right here in Georgia and we’re going to bring the values of compromise, of collaboration, of common sense, and of common ground to getting things done in Washington.”
The mood was just as high at Nunn’s next event, an evening rally at the South DeKalb Mall in Decatur. Two hours before the start time, a fleet of buses pulled up to drop off early voters, virtually all of them African American, who Nunn volunteers directed towards a crowded polling station past the food court. Afterwards, hundreds gathered for a soul and gospel concert mixed with speeches from Nunn and other prominent politicians.
“The vote is precious, it is powerful, and we must use it!” thundered Democratic Rep. John Lewis, one of the most prominent surviving leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Nunn has made it this far on a simple two-part campaign message: I am a moderate who can work with Republicans to break through gridlock, and my opponent is a partisan millionaire who spent his career outsourcing American jobs.
“We need to bring Georgia values of pragmatism and collaboration and common sense to Washington to solve real problems that matter in people’s lives,” Nunn told msnbc in an interview.
Nunn relies heavily on her resume and background to reinforce the message. She spent years running George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light foundation and her father, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, was a popular moderate in the state. She’s turned Georgia’s state motto of “wisdom, justice, moderation” into a catchprase on the trail, with a heavy emphasis on “moderation.”
“In my father’s time he had all sorts of friends that worked together and I think that doesn’t happen as much anymore,” she said. “The women in the Senate are an example of one of the few groups that meet on a regular basis, just building relationships so they can forge bipartisan policy.”
As for the other half her message, she’s engaged in a relentless barrage of attacks on her opponent’s private sector career.
The two messages might conflict somewhat, but so far it seems to be working. Perdue’s business experience, which includes successful runs as CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, forms the core of his own outsider campaign message, but his work at companies that moved jobs overseas has become a serious vulnerability. Nunn’s rise this month coincided with the emergence of a 2005 court deposition in which Perdue said he spent “most of my career” handling outsourcing issues, a quote that the Democrat brought up at every opportunity in their debate on Sunday.
“He’s right that this is a part of the enterprise system and it’s a part of business,” Nunn told reporters on Monday. “I just don’t think it’s what Georgians are looking for in their qualification for a U.S. senator, someone who spent by their own definition the majority of their life outsourcing jobs.”
Perdue, for his part, has worked hard to undermine Nunn’s independence by tying her to President Obama in ads and debates and reinforcing his own pledge to confront the president more forcefully. He and Republican allies are eagerly passing around the president’s own words to a Georgia radio station this week to make the case: “If Michelle Nunn wins, that means that Democrats keep control of the Senate. And that means that we can keep on doing some good work.”
“When you have a failed presidency you have to prosecute it because we deserve better then we’re getting right now,” Perdue said in Sunday’s debate.
The story of Nunn’s competitive position is as much a story of Georgia’s changing demographics as it is about the candidate. Republicans have known for some time that the state’s population, which is rapidly becoming less white, is a problem for them. What they didn’t expect was how quickly the threat would arrive, especially in an off-year election without an African American candidate on the top of the ticket. The GOP easily swept its elections in 2010 thanks in part to a large drop in Democratic turnout.
“The competitiveness really caught a lot of folks by surprise,” Todd Rehm, a Republican consultant in the state, told msnbc. “Normally if you said you were going a state to win by turning out people who don’t normally vote you’d be laughed out of the room.”
The race could have implications nationally as a result. One of the biggest questions in politics for 2016 and beyond is whether the ascendant coalition of minority voters, women, and young people that President Obama built can survive beyond his presidency.
Democratic leaders in the state roll their eyes at the oft-repeated theory that black residents, who make up 31% of the state’s population, won’t stay as engaged in elections post-Obama. It helps that the party is running five African American women for statewide office this year lower on the ticket at a time when only two African American women hold statewide office nationally. The momentum isn’t unique to Nunn’s candidacy either – Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter is performing almost as well in polls against Republican Governor Nathan Deal, who holds a small lead on average.
Georgia has added 183,000 registered voters since March of last year and only one-third described themselves as white. Democratic voter drives are now the subject of a broiling controversy in the state as party officials are suing over 40,000 registration forms that they claim have not been processed. Election officials argue that they’ve processed all valid applications as they’ve come.
“There’s a misunderstanding if you assume the only reason African Americans vote is because there’s someone who looks like us at the top of the ticket,” Stacey Abrams, the Democratic minority leader of the state assembly and a leader of the registration efforts, told msnbc. “People understand the importance of this election. It’s the first time in a decade where there’s a real sense of optimism that we can win.”