No Democrat has won statewide office in Georgia since 1998. But Michelle Nunn intends to change that by winning the Senate seat her father held for 24 years. Nunn is campaigning as an “independent minded” Democrat, and when I spoke with her this week, she had just completed a 10-city “What Can Washington Learn From Georgia” tour—a trip she undertook with her two young children in tow and her husband at the wheel of a rented red minivan.
Nunn is a third-generation politico. During the trip, the family encountered people who remembered her grandfather’s time as mayor of Perry (where her brother now farms the family’s land). Some came up to talk about how they had interned for her father, while others simply wanted to thank her for help her dad had provided. “It’s a great network to tap into,” she says.
Her father, former senator Sam Nunn, ran as a conservative, national-security-minded Democrat until he retired in 1997, and Michelle Nunn believes that if she can define herself as someone who thinks independently of party politics, she can overcome the very long odds for the Democrats in Georgia. “People don’t want more ideologues in Washington,” she says.
Former senator Max Cleland, a Democrat, says Nunn’s campaign faces “one hell of a heavy lift,” but adds that her profile is attractive to voters “because she exemplifies public service—not just her last name but in her life.”
After college Nunn helped build a highly successful nonprofit called Hands On Atlanta that matched volunteers with projects and people. In 2007 Hands On merged with another volunteering organization, the Points of Light Foundation, and the 46-year-old Nunn currently serves as its CEO, though she’s on leave at the moment.
Nunn doesn’t yet have the name recognition that her father does, but her family’s roots in the state serve her well, says state Sen. Jason Carter, a grandson of President Carter. “Georgia is certainly on the verge of becoming a battleground state, and Michelle is the kind of person who can push that curve early,” says Carter, who points to Mitt Romney’s comparatively narrow victory in the state and the demographic changes that are recasting the political map.
Charles Bullock, a political-science professor at the University of Georgia, agrees that demographic change is coming—it’s just not coming fast enough for Nunn. The seat is “the Republicans’ to lose,” he says, but adds that Nunn’s candidacy has created excitement in the otherwise “almost moribund” state Democratic Party.
Nunn herself is anxious to see if her skills from the nonprofit world, such as building volunteer networks, will translate in the political arena. “Part of what I can do is present a set of ideas and really engage people at the grassroots” level, she says.
Her talents for engaging people and networking were certainly in evidence earlier in the week at a Georgia Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Macon, where more than 1,000 people had gathered to honor the retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and his bipartisan efforts in Washington. Chambliss said he modeled himself after Sam Nunn, whom he called a friend and counselor. “I think people do respect the tradition of our great Georgia senators,” Michelle Nunn said at the luncheon. “And I’m lucky to have a father who was one of them.” Unlike her Republican rivals who think Chambliss is a sellout for working with Democrats, Nunn takes every opportunity to praise him, explaining to me, “It’s easier for a Democrat to express appreciation for Saxby Chambliss and his bipartisanship than for a Republican. It’s easier to be independent-minded as a Democrat.”