By Tom Baxter
Within a few minutes of each other during Sunday night’s Loudermilk-Young Atlanta Press Club debate, Michelle Nunn and David Perdue gave a clear indication which voters they think they need to win this very close U.S. Senate race.
For Michelle Nunn the moment came when the Libertarian candidate, Amanda Swafford, challenged her over a flier urging black voters in Georgia to avoid “another Ferguson in your future.”
On most issues Nunn has run the sort of center-right campaign her father might have decades ago. But on this issue she chose her words carefully, neither condoning nor condemning the flier, but repeating her view that the shooting of a black youth in Ferguson, Mo., should spark a “conversation.”
“I think about it from a mother’s perspective,” she said.
That was the tipoff that women, and especially African-American women, are the voters Nunn needs to push her over the finish line in next week’s election.
Moments later, in a long exchange over how to end gridlock in Washington, Perdue rejected Nunn’s assertion that a bipartisan approach is needed, and doubled down on his argument that the Obama administration should be “prosecuted.”
“When we look at the direction of this country, we’ve got to make a hard right-hand turn,” Perdue said. “The direction of this country is failing.”
That was as sure a sign as any that the voters Perdue needs to close the deal for him are those who are deeply conservative, strongly anti-Obama and really not all that concerned about gridlock in Washington.
Perdue hedged his bet slightly when he was asked after the debate whether he thought the country was ready to make “a hard right-hand turn,” given the number of races, like his, that are within the margin of error between Democrats and Republicans. He said that he was making “a metaphorical statement, not a political statement.”
It’s a little late in the campaign for metaphor. Perdue may not want the liabilities of the hard-right label, any more than Nunn wants to be linked to the Ferguson flier. But with a week to go in this campaign they both know the votes they have to have.
A bevy of polls released in the last week have Nunn and Perdue virtually tied, and this race likely headed toward an early January runoff that could have the entire political establishment of Washington on pins and needles. For a variety of reasons, it may be harder to judge the universe of voters this year than ever before, and polls are only as good as the voters they poll.
Running in a red state, and with national generic polls trending Republican as ISIS and Ebola dominate the headlines, Perdue has a lot of advantages in this race. Yet he was the candidate who was more ill at ease Sunday night, swinging hard at Nunn for “hypocrisy” and giving her media campaign a priceless gift by suggesting that a lawsuit by “less than 2,000” women in a company of 70,000 employees was no big deal.
“Two thousand women — that actually seems like quite a lot to me,” Nunn said. You’re likely to hear several variations of that retort on the campaign trail.
Nunn has grown considerably as a campaigner since she got into this race, tossing back Perdue’s jabs with a smile on her face and deftly handling the knife when on the attack. Political skill alone with not make the final difference in this race, however.
With the race this close, what could either campaign have done to increase its chances of victory? Hard to say, but we may look back on this race as the last one in which Latino voters played no significant role. Perdue made disparaging mention of amnesty once or twice in this debate, and Nunn mentioned her support for a bipartisan immigration reform bill.
All in all, both candidates made a stronger pitch for the Libertarian vote Sunday night than the Latino vote. It won’t be that way much longer.
Speaking of the Libertarians, if this race goes to a runoff it will be the third time they have tied up a U.S. Senate race in Georgia since 1992. By now they should have worked out a pretty good strategy for how to exact the most in exchange for their runoff endorsement, perhaps including support for ballot expansion in Georgia. Let’s see if they have.