ATLANTA (AP) — Former Gov. Zell Miller, still a popular figure across much of this GOP-leaning state, has endorsed Democratic Senate nominee Michelle Nunn over Republican David Perdue, explaining his decision in a Nunn campaign ad.
"Michelle Nunn gives this old Georgian hope," the 82-year-old former Democratic governor and senator says. He describes the Senate hopeful as "a bridge builder, not a bridge burner."
The endorsement from Miller, who famously crossed party lines in 2004 to endorse Republican President George W. Bush for re-election and deliver the GOP convention's keynote address, came the same day that the national GOP's Senate campaign arm unleashed two ads framing Nunn as a "rubber stamp" for President Barack Obama and his "liberal values."
The dueling ad blitz crystallizes the themes of one of the most closely watched matchups of the 2014 midterms, as voters are left to decide which characterization of Nunn they believe. The outcome will help decide which party controls the Senate during the final years of the Obama administration. Republicans need six more seats for a majority and can't afford to lose retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss's seat.
A non-profit executive from Atlanta and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, Michelle Nunn pitches herself as a "common-sense problem solver" above the rancor that has largely paralyzed Capitol Hill since Republicans regained a House majority in 2010 to ensure divided government. With Miller's endorsement, she now has another popular retired Georgia icon, in addition to her 75-year-old father, to cite as reinforcements for her message.
Republicans, meanwhile, are betting heavily on their national strategy to tie Democratic candidates to the president, particularly in Republican-leaning states. Obama lost Georgia twice, albeit by single-digit margins that were much closer than other Deep South states.
"Michelle Nunn? She'll be Obama's senator," says the announcer in one of the GOP ads, paid for with $830,000 from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The competing portrayals of Nunn are aimed squarely at white independents and conservatives, the erstwhile "Southern Democrats" who gave Miller and Sam Nunn a combined 13 statewide victories spanning from the elder Nunn's first Senate victory in 1972 to Miller's Senate special election win in 2000. During that time, Nunn rose to national prominence while Miller helped enact Georgia's lottery and HOPE college scholarships. But many of their backers have shifted firmly into the Republican column.
The Perdue campaign tacitly acknowledged those dynamics Thursday, avoiding any mention of Miller and instead reinforcing the GOP strategy. "The one sure way to continue the dysfunction and partisanship in Washington is to vote for Barack Obama and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid's hand-picked candidate," said Perdue spokeswoman Megan Whittemore.
The Republican ad campaign, meanwhile, features partial quotes from Nunn during a Democratic primary debate this spring.
"I am very grateful for my service with President Obama," she says in a May 11 clip from the Atlanta Press Club debate.
That was part of her response to primary opponents criticizing her emphasis on her work as CEO of Republican former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light foundation, while avoiding mentioning Obama.
Her complete answer was: "I'm proud to have worked with President Obama and I've had a really, the great fortune to have worked with all of our presidents. But I am very grateful for my service with President Obama with Michelle Obama and I am excited to advance the things that I think are for Georgia and would work with President Obama to accomplish that, and if we have areas of disagreement then I would work to make improvements as well."
A second clip shows Nunn saying, "I defer to the president's judgment."
That was part of her response when asked whether then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign amid criticism of his department's treatment of veterans.
"We need accountability; we need to make sure there's a congressional oversight of this issue," Nunn said. "I defer to the president's judgment about the leadership that will be necessary to ensure that accountability and that transparency and that we actually change the system in order to preclude this from ever happening again."