Senate elections 101: Georgia might turn on David Perdue gaffe

GOP nominee Perdue's comment, in a 2005 deposition, that 'I spent most of my career' outsourcing, riles rural, blue-collar former Democrats who are the most vulnerable part the GOP base. Georgia has the nation's highest unemployment rate.

John Amis/AP/File
Republican US Senate candidate David Perdue (l.) is introduced by Sen. John McCain (r.) during a campaign event at VFW Post 2681 on Oct. 15, 2014, in Marietta, Ga. Perdue is running against Democrat Michelle Nunn for Georgia's open Senate seat, to be vacated by retiring GOP Senator Saxby Chambliss.

The Monitor's "Senate elections 101" series looks at the specific issues that will be driving voters in each of the 10 tossup races.

It’s just a fact: In what has been a solidly red state, ex-CEO David Perdue, who is squaring off against Michelle Nunn for a Senate seat being vacated by Republican Saxby Chambliss, failed to put the Democrat away early, thus making Tuesday one of the most interesting, and nationally important, Georgia contests in decades.

An ideological struggle on the campaign trail has been augmented by a sense of dynasty. Ms. Nunn, after all, is the daughter of former US Sen. Sam Nunn and Mr. Perdue is the first cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Despite that kind of name recognition, Nunn, who paints herself as an independent and who for years ran George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light charity, should have struggled more for purchase in a state that solidly voted for Mitt Romney two years ago. (The GOP has won all statewide elections in Georgia since 2002, the year Georgians finally forgave the Republicans for Reconstruction.)

Perdue has worked hard to paint Nunn as a puppet of the Obama administration, while pointing to his own experience as a job creator. But Perdue provided the quip of the campaign when it emerged he said in a 2005 deposition that "I spent most of my career" outsourcing, including while running Pillowtex, a North Carolina textile conglomerate that eventually went belly up.

That comment, which Perdue says has been taken out of context, has irked the most vulnerable part of Perdue’s rural base: blue-collar former Democrats, who have watched their jobs disappear and wages stagnate. Taking a cue from the Democratic 2012 strategy against Mr. Romney, who was portrayed as a corporate raider, Nunn has noted that, yes, outsourcing is a key cog of capitalism, but that doesn’t make an outsourcing specialist qualified to be a US senator.

Meanwhile, Georgia has shed manufacturing jobs faster than the national average in the last decade, as it has lost ground as an economic powerhouse in the South. Long a land of plentiful employment, Georgia’s unemployment rate, at at 7.9 percent, is now the highest in the US.

That's why “outsourcing attacks ... seem to have particularly fertile ground in which to take root in Georgia,” writes Dante Chinni, in The Wall Street Journal.

The Georgia Senate race is "one of the few races in the country to break heavily toward Democrats," according to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls.

Emory University political scientist Merle Black points to Gov. Nathan Deal’s struggles against challenger Jason Carter, the grandson of President Jimmy Carter, as an example of a parallel problem for the GOP. Governor Deal is in a dead heat against state Senator Carter, while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican who took office at the same time as Deal, is coasting on a 20-point lead in her reelection bid.

The GOP’s reality in Georgia’s statewide challenges, according to Mr. Black, is: “Very weak Republican candidates are facing very aggressive Democratic candidates.”

Moreover, demographic changes are turning rock-red states like Georgia into swing states. In a bid to hasten that outcome, Democrats also have mounted a voter registration drive that reports registering 120,000 new black voters. 

Despite such challenges, Perdue has held a small but steady lead in the polls for the bulk of the campaign. Nunn, however, pulled slightly ahead in the latest statewide polling averages. If Nunn manages to wrest a Senate seat away from the GOP, it will complicate the party's quest to win back the Senate and thus control Congress for the last two years of the Obama administration. 

Given all that, it would be a watershed election, if the Republican nominee didn’t survive, yet again, to become the next US senator from the 13th colony.

Neither candidate is expected to cross the state's 50-percent threshold. If that is the case, the outcome will be decided in a Jan. 6 runoff. 

Please read our other entries in this series:

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