Michelle Nunn, shown during a visit to Albany in August, is attempting to capture the U.S. Senate seat that is being vacated by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie. Previously, her father, former Sen. Sam Nunn, also a Democrat, held the Senate seat. (Albany Herald File Photo)
By Greg Bluestein and Daniel Malloy
The Atlanta Journal_Constitution
ATLANTA (MCT) — The candidacies of Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter hold tantalizing promise for Georgia Democrats who have watched Republicans dominate state government for more than a decade, and the pair is sparking national interest in a dynamic 2014 campaign.
But the two young politicians are known more for their famous kin than their own accomplishments. And they are untested in a statewide race, let alone the onslaught they are likely to face from well-financed opponents, assuming they survive their primaries.
Carter, 38, formally announced his run for governor Thursday, another step in the path of his famous grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter. He joins U.S. Senate candidate Nunn, the 46-year-old daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, in a tandem that has Democrats dreaming of a return to power.
“We might be seeing a major change in Georgia politics,” said former state Adjutant General David Poythress, who has twice run for governor as a Democrat.
But optimism only goes so far. Democrats lost their grip on the Governor’s Mansion for the first time in generations in 2002 and quickly ceded much of the rest of the state’s hierarchy to the GOP. Republicans now control every statewide office, most of the congressional seats and a commanding majority in the state Legislature.
The Carter and Nunn candidacies give the state party, which only a few months ago was struggling to remain solvent, a new crop of bold-faced names to rally around.
But those names come attached to the reputations of their more-famous relatives.
Nunn could see some benefits from her ties to her father. His name still carries weight with even the most ardent Republicans for his fiscal conservatism and military support.
But the Carter brand could struggle to attract voters outside the Democratic Party in a state that resoundingly supported Mitt Romney just a year ago.
“The Carter name is not going to bring any Republicans across the aisle,” University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said. “Part of what this shows you is how weak the Democratic bench is that ideally when you’re seeking to win a statewide position, you’re looking for somebody who’s already run statewide.”
Jimmy Carter’s more liberal bearings, plus a one-term presidency viewed by many Republicans as a troubled tenure, give him a more complex legacy that the younger Carter will have to reconcile.
The younger Carter acknowledged that legacy but said his grandfather is far more of an asset than a liability.
“At the end of the day, partisan people may have opinions, but it’s rare for me to meet somebody who thinks he’s a bad person,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And that’s the judgment that ultimately he cares about and the one that makes me proud of him.”
On Thursday, Carter’s entry generated immediate excitement among national Democrats, several of whom said they expected major Democratic donors to be intrigued by the candidacy. Nunn brought in $1.7 million in her first three months as a candidate, and Carter would need to show similar heft to compete with Gov. Nathan Deal.
“How great is that?” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a close adviser to President Bill Clinton, when asked about a Carter-Nunn combo. “Not just that he’s the president’s grandson, but more importantly, it tells people it’s a winnable race. This is not a man who anybody thinks he’s a sacrificial lamb.”
Deal’s camp resisted comparing the younger Carter and his grandfather, but spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor would have ample opportunity to strike a contrast with the Democrat. He said Deal’s focus is on the economy and the two GOP rivals he faces in the primary.
“We have governed conservatively, but we’ve governed pragmatically and we’ve governed with an open-door policy. And people have noticed we have someone in office who is mature and capable and has a record of success to run on,” Robinson said. “And he will have a vision for the next four years we will make evident.”
The duo’s inexperience is compounded by the fact that neither has a well-known primary challenger to test them before a general election. Former state Sen. Connie Stokes of Lithonia, who had announced a run for governor, lined up Thursday behind Carter and said she would instead run for lieutenant governor.
The big-name candidacies mean the lesser-known rivals will struggle even more for attention and funds. Nunn faces several lightly funded Democratic opponents, and Deal is running against state Schools Superintendent John Barge and Dalton Mayor David Pennington in the GOP race.
Pennington said Carter’s candidacy is a sign Democrats “are coming out of the woodwork because they know the vulnerability of our current governor.”
Carter has already shown he can raise money nationwide. Since he started campaigning for the state Senate in late 2009, he has collected contributions from donors in 33 states and the District of Columbia.Yet he’ll be hamstrung by his decision not to step down from the Senate. Retaining his seat grants him a powerful pulpit to assail Deal and other Republicans, but state law forbids lawmakers from raising funds during a legislative session that could exceed three months.
Deal’s campaign is expected to send a message this week by spending $120,000 on metro Atlanta television ads more than six months before the primary vote.