They are scions of two of Georgia’s most prominent and popular political families, one the daughter of iconic Democratic former Sen. Sam Nunn, the other the cousin of Sonny Perdue, the first Republican to win the governor’s office since Reconstruction.
Yet neither Michelle Nunn nor David Perdue has been able to lock up the race for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. And with a Libertarian candidate drawing a small but steady sliver of the vote, the contest for closely divided Georgia – and perhaps control of the entire Senate – may not be decided until a runoff in January.
“It may not be over in November. It may last until the next Congress is actually sworn in,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.
It’s a potentially crucial race as they seek to replace Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, who isn’t running for re-election.
Republicans are expected to win several seats from Democrats nationwide, perhaps gaining control of the Senate. But Georgia is one of the few states where the Republicans are at risk of losing a seat, which could complicate their march to power in Washington.
Perdue has the edge. “I still think it’s probably Republicans’ to lose,” said Bullock. Republicans have been gaining in Georgia for the last decade: Since Sonny Perdue won the governor’s office, they’ve taken the Legislature and both U.S. Senate seats.
But the state isn’t a slam dunk. Perdue doesn’t have majority support in the polls – necessary on Election Day to win outright and avoid a runoff. Chambliss himself had to win re-election in 2008 in a runoff. And while President Barack Obama isn’t popular in the state, his numbers aren’t as bad here as they are in much of the rest of the South, instead reflecting the national average.
The two major-party candidates are running as outsiders, despite their pedigrees.
Nunn, who’s 47, moved to Washington with her family after her father was elected in 1972 – she was 6 when he won – but stresses that she moved back to the state in 1989.”As soon as I graduated from college I moved back to Georgia, and I’ve been here ever since,” she said. Her father held the seat until 1997.
Back in Atlanta, she co-founded the nonprofit Hands On Network volunteer group, which in 2007 merged with the Points of Light Foundation, founded by former President George H.W. Bush. Nunn became the president of the combined organization.
Perdue, who’s 64, is also a Georgia native who moved out of the state, then came home.
He worked at companies in Atlanta and eventually as the CEO of Dollar General, Reebok and Pillowtex. He’s a founder of Perdue Partners LLC, an international trading company, and he’s the CEO of the investment firm Aquila Group LLC. Those jobs took him “from Singapore, Hong Kong and Paris to Dallas, Boston and Nashville,” according to his website.
“We were gone from – let’s see – from probably somewhere around 1990 to the mid-2000s, 2005 or 2006,” Perdue said.
If the candidates’ paths brought both of them home to Georgia, their approaches to issues differ greatly.
Perdue paints Nunn as a rubber stamp for Obama. Nunn says she’d work across the aisle to break partisan gridlock in Washington.
Among the flash points: health care, immigration and taxes.
Perdue calls for repealing the Affordable Care Act and says his own health insurance was canceled because of the changes it required. His campaign provided a June 2013 letter from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia that said his wife’s plan would close, due in part to the act’s requirements for comprehensive benefits. Perdue said his new insurance included features he didn’t want at twice the premium cost.
He urges an alternative that would give tax credits and deductions for insurance purchases. It includes neither a mandate for coverage nor a requirement for insurers to cover pre-existing conditions.
Nunn said the Affordable Care Act needed to be accepted and improved. She also urges reducing the backlog of claims in the Veterans Health Administration. She calls for integrating health records to speed the process, making it easier to get services and giving employers incentives to hire veterans.
On immigration, Perdue raises fears of Middle Eastern terrorists sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I think we ought to absolutely separate it from the immigration issue and deal with it as a security issue,” Perdue said. He calls for intensive surveillance and more patrols.
Nunn’s campaign mentions border security but also calls for “an accountable pathway to citizenship that requires those currently living here (to) go to the back of the line, pass a background check, learn English and pay back taxes.” If that happens, she said, penalties should exist for anyone who doesn’t follow the new rules. She said she expected most to leap at the chance to become legal residents.
On taxes, they clash over the proposed Fair Tax, which would replace corporate, payroll, income and estate taxes with a national sales tax. Proponents say a 23 percent rate would bring in the same amount as the taxes it replaced, but the nonpartisan analysis group FactCheck.org says a bipartisan panel indicates it would take a 34 percent tax rate to be revenue neutral.
“My preference is the Fair Tax,” Perdue said.
Nunn said the Fair Tax would cost most people about $4,000 a year more than they were paying now while giving the wealthiest 1 percent an average cut of $200,000.
“That is not a ‘Fair Tax’ reform for the majority of Georgians,” she said.