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Georgia GOP has its man in 'outsider' Perdue. Can he best Democrats' Nunn?

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

David Perdue, former chief executive officer of Dollar General, squeaked by 11-term Congressman John Kingston to win the Republican Party’s US Senate primary in Georgia on Tuesday. Mr. Perdue faces Democrat Michelle Nunn in a November election that could test ingrained assumptions about what it takes to win big elections in the modern Bible Belt.

The faceoff between two political neophytes with well-known last names – Perdue is the cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, and Ms. Nunn is the daughter of Sam Nunn, the powerful former senator – is being watched as a harbinger of changing demographics in red states and the ability of Republicans to adjust to emerging voter trends. The state is experiencing minority population growth, at a level to make Georgia a swing presidential state by 2020.

More immediately, if Perdue loses to Nunn in November, Republicans can probably kiss goodbye their hopes of taking majority control of the US Senate. Republicans need to net an additional six seats to take control of both houses of Congress for President Obama’s last two years in office, and losing the Georgia seat would devastate that plan.

All of that sets up the first nationally important Georgia race in years. To win, Perdue must stave off Nunn and her backing by the so-called Bannock Street Project, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s use of voter data and volunteers to target for turnout single women and minorities, who typically participate in midterm elections at lower rates than do older, white, Republican-skewing voters.

Without real primary competition, Nunn has been able to sit on an estimated $6 million war chest, while Perdue has had to empty most of his coffers to survive against Mr. Kingston. Perdue’s personal wealth will likely enable him to keep up with Nunn in ad spending and other campaign expenses, analysts say.

The basic strategy for Nunn is to paint the occasionally gaffe-prone Perdue – who failed to rescue struggling textile giant Pillowtex when he was CEO there – as an out-of-touch Mitt Romney-like character.

By the same token, Nunn, former CEO of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, has a considerable challenge: Excite Democrats enough to come out in larger-than-usual numbers while wooing at least 30 percent of white Georgians to vote for her. The danger for her is that she’ll be forced to run so hard as a moderate that Obama-loving Democrats shrug her off.

Although Nunn has led against potential Republican challengers in past polls, “The national Democratic Party’s going to have some tough decisions to make,” predicts Brian Walsh, a consultant to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in an NPR interview aired Wednesday. “I frankly would be a little surprised if, come September or October, they’re spending serious money in either Kentucky or Georgia” – the two states where Democrats have a good chance to snatch a GOP-held Senate seat. 

In that light, Georgia, like other Southern states experiencing demographic change, remains a foggy crystal ball. Its share of nonwhite residents – a typically liberal contingent – rose from 37 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2010, but it's hard to know how they stack up on Election Day against the bedrock of the Republican Party in the South: older whites.

Moreover, white Georgians aren’t necessarily Republican to the bone. Democrats held power in Georgia as recently as 2002, meaning that “voting Democratic is not as distant a memory for many white Georgians as for their counterparts in other Deep South states,” surmises Ed Kilgore, in a recent Washington Monthly piece.

Perdue wants to make sure that crossover doesn’t happen, so he'll be running the same kind of outsider campaign that helped him defeat Kingston, a congressional veteran with many connections. The aim will be to lay bare the purported excesses of the powers-that-be in Washington and to outline how a political outsider with an eye for business could help turn the political tide on Capitol Hill.

"I respect Michelle Nunn. I respect her family," Perdue said Tuesday night, in his victory speech. Nevertheless, “I will prosecute the failed record of the last six years of Barack Obama,” he said.

The real X factor in Georgia politics this season may be name recogition. As Perdue and Nunn face off for the Senate seat, Jason Carter – yes, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter – is running for governor against incumbent Republican Nathan Deal. He is leading in at least one poll. Mr. Carter didn’t grow up in Georgia, but rather in Chicago, a point Governor Deal has driven home several times and will probably continue to do.