NEWNAN, Ga. (AP) — Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn has spent the past month hammering away at Republican David Perdue's career as a business executive, making his role in outsourcing jobs a hallmark of her campaign for U.S. Senate.
With two weeks to go, Republicans think they've weathered the storm and remain bullish on their chances to pick up the six seats they need to regain a Senate majority. But Nunn could yet complicate the GOP's path by squeezing out a victory — or at least force a runoff that would leave the midterm congressional elections unsettled until January.
"I think we've seen the worst of it," said Rob Collins, executive director of Senate Republicans' national campaign effort. "What we need to talk about more is that she would be another rubber stamp" for her party.
Yet Nunn's offensive has forced Perdue to spend time defending his supposed strength — his business record — while taking time away from his core message linking Nunn to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama. Both are broadly unpopular figures in a largely Republican state where Obama was twice defeated by Republicans.
Perdue began a 10-day bus tour of the state Thursday morning hammering that theme. "Look, 70 percent of the country agrees with us that we need a new direction," he told a supportive crowd at a courthouse square diner in Newnan, about 40 miles outside Atlanta. "If you like (Obama's) policies, vote for Michelle Nunn. ... If you are as outraged as I am, then stand with me."
Nunn, meanwhile, continued her assault this week, highlighting Republican opposition to a minimum wage hike while portraying Perdue as an overpaid CEO who mistreated employees.
"We need to ask what David's business career really equips him to do," Nunn said at a campaign stop Wednesday in the suburbs north of Atlanta. "Is it really to serve the people of Georgia?"
Nunn's initial attacks on Perdue's business record reprised an argument made by Perdue's Republican primary rivals. Perdue left Pillowtex, a struggling North Carolina textile company, in 2003 after only eight months on the job and just months before it closed — a collapse that left 7,500 people out of work. Democrats have piled on by touting a legal settlement with female employees who alleged gender-pay discrimination during Perdue's tenure as CEO of the retailer Dollar General.
Her argument gained steam in early October when Politico published a 2005 deposition Perdue gave in lawsuits that followed the Pillowtex closure. Asked about his "experience with outsourcing," Perdue replied, "Yeah, I spent most of my career doing that."
Days later, Perdue doubled down: "Defend it?" he told reporters. "I'm proud of it. This is a part of American business, part of any business. Outsourcing is the procurement of products and services to help your business run."
His deposition answer and the words "I'm proud of it" have since played thousands of times on Georgia airwaves. Several polls suggest the race has tightened amid the attacks, though Perdue backers say they haven't seen evidence of eroding support on the ground.
"People have asked about the outsourcing," said Rob Kiser, a retired air traffic controller and current law student who volunteered to work for the Perdue campaign in Coweta County. "But he's still strong here. Most people still see him as having fresh ideas."
For his part, Perdue said he thinks it's unfair to cast him as out of touch.
"People understand that my mom and dad were school teachers," he told the Associated Press in Newnan. "I worked on our family farm growing up. I worked my way through Georgia Tech. At Dollar General, we had an ethos there, a mission to help families get from pay day to pay day. Those aren't just words. I really internalized that ... and created and saved thousands of jobs throughout my career."
Republicans predict Perdue still will benefit from the historical trend of midterm elections producing electorates that are smaller, older, whiter and more conservative than in presidential election years.
But even on that score, Nunn's backers say they're optimistic. New voter registration figures released this week show the overall electorate in Georgia is slightly smaller than in 2012, with whites now making up 58 percent of the state's roughly 6 million voters. That's down from 63 percent just six years ago, when Obama lost the state by 5 percentage points.
Democrats argue that adds to the power of minority voters who make up Nunn's core base of support, while her attacks on Perdue's business record allow her to reach white moderates and independents who didn't vote for Obama.
It's Perdue, they add, who must spend the closing act trying to excite his base. He will campaign this weekend with national tea party favorites, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in separate events. And this week he announced an endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee.
Both sides are investing to the very end. The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently moved another $1.4 million into the race, and its Democratic counterparts answered with a new $1 million for Nunn.