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A father looms large in key US Senate race

September 27, 2014

ALBANY, Georgia (AP) — It’s nothing new for a Nunn to be on the ballot in Georgia, but a casual voter might be forgiven for not knowing which one is running this year.

Michelle Nunn, a 47-year-old making her first bid for office, carries the Democratic banner for an open Senate seat. Still, at many campaign stops her father, former Sen. Sam Nunn, isn’t far behind, sleeves rolled up and hands extended as if he hadn’t retired in 1997 after four terms.

The significance goes beyond simply family support as Michelle Nunn battles Republican David Perdue in a race that will help determine which party controls the Senate through the end of President Barack Obama’s second term.

Georgia offers one of the few opportunities for Democrats to pick up a Republican-held seat and thwart Republican efforts to pick up the six seats needed to gain control of the Senate in the Nov. 4 elections when control of Congress will be at stake. Republicans are expected to keep control of the House of Representatives. Senate control would not only boost Republican efforts to block Obama from implementing his agenda, but also make it more difficult to gain approval for his judicial and other appointments.

The 76-year-old Nunn towered over Georgia’s politics for a generation, much longer than another contemporary, former President Jimmy Carter. Nunn gained national prominence to the point that he was mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee in 2008, when Obama was a young Illinois senator.

Perhaps most importantly, Nunn remains popular among many older white voters who don’t like the president.

Obama lost Georgia twice, in no small part because of whites who once backed “Southern Democrats” such as Sam Nunn. That makes the elder Nunn a central part of his daughter’s defense against Republican attacks that she’s a “rubber stamp” for Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“Sam Nunn was, number one, extremely likable from a personality standpoint,” said Republican campaign consultant Chip Lake, a Georgia native and lifelong Republican. “He just was Georgia to so many people. ... I don’t think Michelle can duplicate that in this environment, but it’s smart for them to try.”

Sam Nunn dismisses the Republican assault as lazy.

“A Senate race is not about a president,” he told The Associated Press. “I tell people if they think Michelle is the best candidate then they ought to vote for her,” he adds, with a middle Georgia accent noticeably absent in his daughter. She grew up in suburban Washington before settling in Atlanta as a young adult.

“People used to ask Sen. (Robert) Byrd how many presidents he’d served under,” Sam Nunn said, recalling the West Virginia Democrat who served 51 years. “His answer was he ain’t never served under any. He served with presidents.”

A 144-page strategy memo, written by consultants for Michelle Nunn and accidentally made public, listed “Senator Nunn” among the few recipients, confirmation of his place at the campaign’s core. The document also named the former senator, a pivotal figure in foreign and military affairs while in Washington, as one of the candidate’s defense policy advisers.

“I’m glad to have my father here with me today,” Michelle Nunn told voters on a day she spent highlighting Georgia’s military installations.

She turns his influence into a laugh line when the former senator isn’t around. “My dad has called me twice today already,” she told a friendly crowd in Athens.

He made a cameo in one of her early television ads, recounting his days as a high school basketball player in Perry, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Atlanta.

Legacy politics are conspicuous in 2014.

David Perdue is the cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. The Democratic nominee for governor, Jason Carter, is the former president’s grandson. Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana use family history to connect with voters who might not otherwise back Democrats.

But Michelle Nunn stands out in how explicitly she invokes her father as a model for how a “common-sense” moderate can represent this Republican-leaning state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 2000.

In her standard speech, she criticizes Washington’s rancor and dysfunction, while noting, “My dad often tells me that he didn’t pass a single piece of significant legislation without at least one Republican co-sponsor.”

That leaked campaign memo lays out the electoral math, projecting that Michelle Nunn needs about 160,000 more white votes than the 412,000 that Democrat Roy Barnes got losing the governor’s race in 2010, the last national midterm election.

Sam Nunn sidesteps detailed discussion of demographics and turnout, saying his daughter’s argument has broad appeal. But he says Senate nuances don’t translate into easy sound bites.

He said voters “ought to recognize that the majority in the Senate doesn’t mean actual control if people aren’t willing to get along. You’ve still got to get to 60.” That’s the threshold for overcoming a Senate rule requiring 60 votes to bring legislation to a final vote. Neither major party will have 60 seats in January.

“I’m not talking about electing senators who don’t have principles,” Sam Nunn said. “But fixing this means having senators who respect that their colleagues have different principles and who understand the necessity of compromise.”

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