David Perdue waves to supporters after declaring victory in the Republican primary runoff for nomination to the U.S. Senate from Georgia, at his election-night party in Atlanta, July 22, 2014.
John Bazemore—AP
By Alex Rogers
October 27, 2014

If Georgia’s Senate race goes into overtime, the safe bet is on the Republicans. But if that runoff election will determine control of the Senate, it’s anyone’s game.

Elections handicappers are increasingly confident that the contest between Republican businessman David Perdue and Democratic philanthropist Michelle Nunn won’t be decided on November 4. History favors Republicans in a rematch, which would be held on January 6, three days after lawmakers take their oaths of office.

Republicans have won the past five statewide runoff contests by doing a better job turning out their base in the conservative-leaning state.

In 2008—the last Senate runoff in the state—Republican Saxby Chambliss won the first ballot by three percent of the vote, and then a month later trounced his Democratic opponent Jim Martin in the runoff by 15 points. Republicans were boosted in part by the lower turnout, which was around 57 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the same Senate race a month earlier.

“I think Michelle needs to win on November 4,” says University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “I think it’s going to be really difficult for her afterwards.”

To win, Bullock says that Nunn would have to have “strong mobilization” from the African-American community and improve her support from white women, who are much more likely to vote for a Democrat than white men. Bullock sees white voters as the group that could doom Nunn.

“Overall from all the projections I’m seeing from the polls, none of that show her getting 30% of the white vote,” says Bullock. “So if she can’t do that I don’t think there’s any way she can pull it out.”

Another reason Nunn would fare worse in a runoff is Libertarian Amanda Swafford, who recently has been polling between one and six percent. Swafford’s support has been strong enough to keep Nunn and Perdue below the majority threshold needed to win outright on the first ballot. Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University says that Republicans would likely benefit from Libertarians coming to their side in a runoff, on top of the “party ID advantage” they already have in the state.

But both Gillespie and Bullock see a path forward for Nunn, as the media spotlight could turn to Georgia if it turns out to hold the key to a Senate majority. A recent CNN poll even showed Nunn with a 51% to 47% edge over Perdue in a hypothetical runoff, although the polling model took into account a November electorate instead of a likely smaller one.

“Both parties will pull out all the stops to win Georgia, and the outcome would be anyone’s guess,” says Gillespie of a runoff race for the Senate majority.

Democrats remain hopeful that Nunn—a political neophyte with the backing of her father, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn—will win in November despite the state’s reddish cast.

“Her best chance is to win it outright,” says the former Senate Democratic candidate Martin, who now works as an adjunct faculty member at Georgia State University College of Law. “[But] Georgia’s changed and the political environment has changed … A young, energetic, new leader both in the gubernatorial race [Democratic candidate Jason Carter] and in the Senate race attracts people no matter what their age. People like youth and enthusiasm and optimism.”

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