On a brisk December morning, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn toured local startup hub Atlanta Tech Village. She shook hands with video game developers and asked tech company founders about their business plans. The Buckhead campaign stop was her first on a six-city tour visiting Georgia entrepreneurs.
The 47-year-old veteran nonprofit exec held an impromptu press conference to talk about her visit's purpose. It quickly devolved into an interrogation about her stance on the Affordable Care Act. Her attempt to win support from entrepreneurs got lost in the shuffle.
The ninth-generation Georgian stayed above the partisan fray throughout the 10-minute barrage and answered each question with articulate, thoughtful responses. She didn't grandstand and referred back to her moderate platform — stabilizing fiscal policy, growing the economy, improving education, and helping veterans — instead of clinging to party lines and attacking Republicans.
It prompted one reporter to ask: "Are you sure you're running as a Democrat in this race?"
The former CEO of Atlanta-based international nonprofit Points of Light replied, "What I'm running as in this race is a problem solver."
Nunn says she wants to "fix Washington." But the political rookie will first have to convince Georgia voters that she can be effective despite her inexperience.And the daughter of former Georgia U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn will need more than just practical solutions or benevolent ambition to win retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss's open seat in 2014.
Assuming Nunn wins this spring's Democratic primary against Atlanta doctor Branko "Dr. Rad" Radulovacki and Columbus ROTC director Todd Robinson, she will face off against the winner of a crowded Republican primary that includes three current congressmen (Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, Jack Kingston), a former Georgia Secretary of State (Karen Handel), and several other political hopefuls (corporate exec David Perdue, MARTA senior network engineer Derrick Grayson, and Augusta businessman Eugene Yu).
Nunn has gotten off to a fast start, raising an eye-popping $1.7 million in her campaign's first 10 weeks. She'll need the cash to brush aside inevitable partisan skirmishes from whichever GOP nominee emerges. Some attacks have already started. Handel has launched a few strikes and referred to Nunn as "President Obama's liberal, handpicked candidate." And the National Republican Senatorial Committee has pummeled her with a series of ads.
To win, the moderate Democrat will have to appeal to party loyalists and sway right-of-center voters with her centrist platform. Nunn says her focus on the deficit and helping small businesses with tax credits distinguishes her.
"I have yet to hear any of [my opponents] talk about startup or entrepreneurship," she says. "I have not heard a lot of conversation about how to get our economy growing again."
But if Nunn has any shot of winning a statewide race in Georgia, a red state, she'll likely need to get voters on board with her "pragmatic" approach to health care. She doesn't think repealing or defunding the Affordable Care Act makes sense and favors delaying portions of the health care program. Medicaid expansion, which she says would give thousands of uninsured veterans access to medical coverage, represents an important part of her health care position.
"How do we ensure that the ACA is executed with effectiveness? It has not been. It's been poorly rolled out," she says. "We need to figure out how does that get fixed and how do we change the things that aren't working."
Nunn hasn't taken many jabs at her opponents. But given Georgia's conservative lean, she might need to go after GOP candidates and point out their flaws. That could change as the Senate race heats up in 2014. Or perhaps her disinterest in political hardball could be her biggest asset given the acrimonious climate in Washington.
"People are tired of the partisan bickering on both sides," she says. "What they want to hear is: What are your ideas for solving problems? Do you want to go to Washington to actually get things done or to continue partisan bickering, polarization, and paralysis?"