By Tom Baxter
Last week a century or so of political experience sat around a lunch table in Cobb County and pondered this question: Has there ever been a U.S. Senate race in which neither the Democratic nor the Republican candidate had previously held elected office?
We’re pols, not political scientists, so there may have been some race we don’t know about or overlooked. But all agreed that we’d never covered or worked on a race of that description. It may be time for a little more rigorous research into that question, because just such a race has appeared on the horizon, shimmering like a pundit’s mirage.
If Michelle Nunn and David Perdue become their party’s nominees, their race would be a striking sign of the American public’s alienation from politics and distrust of incumbency in general. It’s not that Nunn, as the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, and Perdue, cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, don’t have obvious political associations. But for political newcomers to be squaring off in a race more experienced politicians have spent their careers to reach is still, so far as I know, unprecedented.
Nunn’s spot on the ballot is virtually assured, and in fact, only one of the three Democratic opponents she is expected to polish off, former state Sen. Steen Miles, has ever been elected to anything. The real question is whether Perdue, the former Dollar General and Reebok CEO, can turn his favorable showing in two recent polls into something more substantial.
Not the least advantage of being related to the state’s first Republican governor is that he inherited his cousin’s ad man, the swashbuckling Fred Davis, who created the deadly “King Rat” commercial for Sonny Perdue’s 2002 race against Roy Barnes. Davis has drawn blood again this year with an ad which captures the pervading sentiment by portraying the collective Washington experience of Perdue’s opponents as so much baby poop.
There’s no question that a heavy airing of the ad accounts for Perdue’s rapid climb in the polls, but by the same token, the outsider message seems to have found its target.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston showed some of his frustration with the anti-Washington current at Saturday’s debate in Savannah when he answered the criticism of Perdue and Karen Handel over the slow progress of the harbor expansion.
“I’ve worked with two members on Congress on this stage but I haven’t heard from anybody else. …Where were they when we met with the White House, over and over again? Or when we met with the four federal agencies that have to sign off on the project? Can they even name the four agencies?” AP reports him asking.
Chances are they can’t, but that doesn’t seem to be uppermost in the minds of Republican primary voters answering the phone when pollsters call. Kingston also made pointed reference to Perdue’s living in a gated community, which seldom happens at a Republican debate.
With Congress in such low esteem, there’s a real question whether two members of Congress can make it into a runoff with each other, as some may have thought in the early stages of this race. And Handel is running out of time to claim the outsider slot from Perdue. The question would then become whether Perdue can grow enough as a candidate to stand down Kingston, Paul Broun or Phil Gingrey in the summer runoff. It doesn’t seem impossible.
Perdue has already been dubbed the anti-Akin, referring to Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican whose pronouncements about “legitimate rape” helped sink the GOP’s chances of retaking the Senate in 2012. Democrats have salivated as Broun, Gingrey and Kingston have competed to top each other in Akinisms, fighting for their party’s right corner. At some point Perdue will have to make a significant gesture to movement conservatives as well, but he has the great advantage for the general election of never having had to vote on anything.
What kind of race would it be if Perdue pulls it off in the primary? Certainly not the one Democrats were hoping for, with all those easy-target “pits of hell” quotes. It could be a very interesting contest of ideas, between two newly minted politicians who’ve been successful in their respective endeavors.
This assumes of course that Perdue doesn’t stumble or fade in the next few weeks, as he easily could. It’s accurate to say his support is wide and very thin, but in a race with little definition so far, his surge is the closest thing to a trend that we’ve seen. So Georgia may have a Senate race between candidates with no elected experience, and perhaps only the nation’s first in coming years.