Businessman David Perdue (l.) narrowly won a runoff election on July 22 to face Democrat Michelle Nunn (r.) in November midterm elections. The outcome of that race could determine whether Republicans take back the US Senate.

Georgia Senate showdown: Can Dixie royalty really run as ‘outsiders’?

Republican US Senate nominee David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn are political newcomers from politically powerful families, running against the establishment.

Apparently appearances still do matter in the South, as does your name – especially, in this political season, if that name is Perdue, Nunn, or Carter.

As Georgia Republicans in a shocker primary Tuesday backed David Perdue, a first-time candidate whose cousin happens to be former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), a US Senate race with huge stakes for the power balance in Washington began to take shape.

Mr. Perdue’s win means that he will face former Points of Light Foundation CEO Michelle Nunn, a centrist Democrat and daughter of former Senate icon Sam Nunn. Despite their storied family names, both have painted themselves as members of a new breed of "outsiders" ready to shake up Washington.

In what promises to be a secondary gauge of Democratic strength in the solidly red South, Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, edged slightly ahead of Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in a poll released last week. That heavyweight Nov. 4 showdown will determine whether a Democrat can kick a Republican out of Georgia's Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road for the first time in a dozen years.

Indeed, the post-primary images are striking, even here in the still-slightly-royalist South. Somehow, three candidates with famous relatives have managed to become the face of outsiders running fiery anti-incumbent campaigns. Perdue's TV attack ads depicted incumbent GOP rivals as, literally, crying babies.

Support for outsider-styled candidates with inherited name recognition “may be just a malaise, unhappiness with politics, economic conditions, and spillover from what seems to be a totally ineffective Congress,” says Charles Bullock, a longtime political scientist at the University of Georgia, in Athens. “Even if voters have a hard time articulating what they don’t like, at least [outsiders] can say, ‘You don’t find my fingerprints on any of these problems.’ ”

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans are fine-tuning strategies around images, issues, and turnout.

The stakes are high nationally, given that a Nunn victory could scuttle GOP chances of winning the Senate – and thus controlling Congress in the last two years of the Obama presidency – as well as give Democrats a fresh lifeline to the South, where demographic changes are turning rock-red states into more moderate swing states.

In a state that has essentially become a one-party state with half a dozen factions – including Democratic voters that cross over to the Republican primary in hopes of having some impact on the one-party government – Perdue’s win was seen widely as a rebuke of the Republican establishment, embodied by the pro-immigration Chamber of Commerce’s support of his GOP primary runoff opponent, 11-term US Rep. Jack Kingston.

After a bitter primary fight, Perdue has to make sure that a lot of Republicans don’t sit out the election, especially given a palatable alternative in a centrist Democrat with a trustworthy name. That means Perdue will focus on tying, to any extent he can, Nunn to the Obama administration and its policies, as well as ride antipathies and grudges toward President Obama and hot-button issues like ObamaCare and border security, given the current crush of illegal immigration across the Rio Grande.

Nunn’s plan, with the help of national Democrats: Court independent voters and disgruntled Republicans without alienating her more liberal Democratic base, all while registering 500,000 new potential Democratic voters and, through social media and “grab-and-drag” tactics, convince 200,000 of those new voters to come pull the lever for Nunn on Nov. 4.

While Nunn has a hard climb to win the seat long-held by retiring three-term Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, the fact that the National Democratic Senatorial Committee is spending the bulk of its get-out-the-vote resources in the Peach State may signal a sense that Georgia is ready to make a new statement about what kind of policies – and last names – it wants to run things.

Ultimately, “it may be that Democrats are leaner and hungrier, having been out of office so long,” says Professor Bullock.

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