ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia voters headed to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballots in the state's high-stakes battle for an open U.S. Senate seat, while the prospect of a lengthy runoff loomed if no candidate captures a majority of the vote.
The race between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue has been a key battleground in the national fight for control of the Senate and viewed as a bellwether to determine if Democrats have made enough gains in what has been a reliably Republican state to make it competitive for the 2016 presidential election.
With polls suggesting a tight race, Libertarian Amanda Swafford could play spoiler if neither of the two major party candidates are able to capture the required 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a Jan. 6 runoff. And if control of the Senate is still up for grabs after Tuesday, a Georgia runoff would draw an unprecedented amount of attention and money from those looking to influence the balance of power in Washington.
Polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
When Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced his retirement last year, it triggered a free-for-all among Republicans but an early consensus around Nunn, which allowed Democrats to spend time and money building a large-scale effort to identify and track those who either don't vote in midterm elections or might be open to backing a Democrat.
Other groups focused on registering minorities, resulting in nearly 120,000 new voters Democrats hoped to persuade and push to the polls to cut into Republican gains over the last decade.
The race between Nunn, a nonprofit CEO and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, and Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok and the cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, largely centered on who's to blame for gridlock in Washington.
During the campaign, Nunn, 47, emphasized her work leading Points of Light, a volunteer organization founded by former President George H.W. Bush, who endorsed Perdue, and sought to keep her distance from President Barack Obama, who failed to win Georgia in 2008 or 2012.
With voters, Nunn frequently invoked the spirit of bipartisanship that her father, a moderate who represented Georgia for years, was known for and blamed Republicans for last year's government shutdown. She pledged to work with both Democrats and Republicans to advance the needs of Georgia's families while supporting a raise in the minimum wage and a pay equity bill.
Perdue, 64, emphasized his four decades as an executive for major U.S. companies and argued his experiences would position him to create jobs, boost the economy and reduce the nation's debt. He portrayed Nunn as a rubber stamp for the "failed policies" of the Obama administration, arguing she wouldn't be able to buck her party's leadership on important issues.
To demonstrate her independence, Nunn called for changes to the federal health care law and supported the Keystone oil pipeline, which has faced objections from other Democrats. She was attacked over a comment that she would "defer to the president" on whether action should be taken against top VA leadership amid a growing scandal.
Nunn repeatedly sought to use Perdue's business experience against him, portraying him as a Mitt Romney-type politician who made millions while his employees suffered. Early attacks focused on Perdue's tenure at Pillowtex Corp., a troubled North Carolina textile firm that shut down four months after he left and resulted in more than 7,000 people losing their job, and also a wage discrimination lawsuit filed against Dollar General claiming female managers were paid less than male counterparts during his tenure.
Perdue dismissed both as unfair, saying he couldn't save Pillowtex after quickly discovering an unfunded pension liability and that Dollar General opted to settle the lawsuit but didn't admit wrongdoing. In the final month, Nunn appeared to gain momentum when a 2005 court deposition surfaced in which Perdue said he had spent most of his career outsourcing. That put Perdue on the defensive, forcing him to answer questions about his career while arguing outsourcing doesn't always mean shipping jobs overseas.
Meanwhile, Georgia voters were inundated by some 65,000 TV ads during both the Senate primary and general election to the tune of $42.5 million, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. Only North Carolina's Senate race saw more money spent on TV ads than Georgia.
Overall, Perdue raised just over $12 million as of Oct. 15, according to federal finance reports. Of that, Perdue contributed $2.8 million of his own money and loaned his campaign an additional $1.25 million. Nunn, who faced little primary opposition, raised just over $14 million.