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Related story: In Georgia, a Senate race is central to Democrats' hopes

Moderate Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is seen as the party's best chance to pick up a seat in November.

March 13, 2014|Lisa Mascaro
  • Moderate Democrat Michelle Nunn, shown with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), is running aganst several Republicans for a Senate seat from Georgia.
Moderate Democrat Michelle Nunn, shown with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), is… (Erik S. Lesser / European…)

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga.— In an Atlanta hotel ballroom, Republican candidates vying for one of this year's most competitive Senate seats sparred recently over who could best impress a mostly white, conservative-leaning audience.

Among the contenders: a gun rights advocate who made a national splash with plans to raffle an AR-15 rifle; a doctor who once agreed with the suggestion that pregnancy rarely results from rape; and a third who wanted poor students to sweep cafeteria floors to pay for their government-subsidized school lunches.

Noticeably absent was the leading Democratic candidate. Michelle Nunn, a political newcomer with a famous family name, skipped the event, happy to let her rivals tear into one another.

Seen as Democrats' best hope to pick up a Senate seat in the midterm election, the daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn is counting on her Republican opponents to alienate voters with their far-right platforms, as has occurred elsewhere in recent races.

But her campaign also hinges on whether she can take advantage of the Peach State's rapidly changing demographics.

Once a Democratic stronghold, Georgia turned red over the last 20 years as white voters embraced Republican candidates. Fewer than 1 in 4 white Georgians voted for President Obama in 2008.

But a swift rise in Georgia's African American and minority population is tilting the political landscape back.

Much rides on how far that tilt has gone. Democrats face strong Republican challengers in at least half a dozen Senate races — enough to potentially undo the Democratic majority in the chamber. That would leave Obama facing an entirely Republican-controlled Congress for the remaining two years of his term.

But if Nunn wins the seat here, where the incumbent Republican is retiring, Democratic hopes of holding on to the Senate would be significantly improved.

So the day after the Atlanta debate, Nunn, 47, headed to Georgia's Civil War-era capital of Milledgeville, a picturesque place of white-columned buildings and country roads.

"This is exactly the table I want to be at," the former nonprofit director told a group of mostly black seniors who were transforming an abandoned elementary school site into a community garden.

Later at a luncheon of tea sandwiches and homemade cheese straws — a traditional Georgia snack — Nunn tried to charm the moderate white voters that her team sees as equally vital to victory.

Her courting of this often-neglected voter bloc may prove to be smart.

An influx of African Americans moving from other states has made metropolitan Atlanta's black population the nation's second largest after New York, demographers say. New black families are snapping up roomy houses in suburbs that were once predominantly white and filling trendy restaurants downtown.

White voters, meanwhile, have shrunk from 75% of the electorate in 2000 to 61% in 2012. And the trend is expected to accelerate. About 59% of Georgians under age 1 are minorities, census figures show.

Outside Atlanta's popular Sunday brunch spot Mary Mac Tea House, Robert Hawkins, an African American business owner, said the migration of blacks and other minorities was slowly loosening the dominance that GOP-leaning white voters have had in Georgia, creating an opening for Nunn.

"That influence that was here before, it's kind of diluted," he said. "The time is ripe for her."

Still, Nunn faces an uphill battle to become Georgia's first female senator. She needs to motivate black and minority voters to turn out at polls in the same historically high numbers Obama achieved, while not alienating suburban whites who trend Republican but might be willing to give a moderate Democrat a chance. A February poll put her neck-and-neck with the competition.

Hers is not the only Democratic brand in Georgia betting that changing demographics will help the party reverse its decline in the South. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Carter, is vying to unseat Republican Gov. Nathan Deal this fall.

Key to Nunn's fate will be the competitive Republican primary. Five main Republican contenders are pushing one another further right in an effort to appeal to the waning demographic of conservative whites, but none has consistently emerged as a front-runner.

The bruising primary is making Republican elders nervous and GOP consultants quietly warn about a Todd Akin-like problem — shorthand for the 2012 Missouri Senate race in which Akin won the Republican nomination only to lose the general election after he suggested that "legitimate rape" rarely results in pregnancy.

Similar controversies torpedoed Republican candidates in past races and may have cost the party control of the Senate in 2010.

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