Michelle Nunn can come across as a “lightweight,” “too liberal,” not a “real Georgian.” While she served as CEO for the Points of Light Foundation, the organization gave grants to “inmates” and “terrorists.” And her Senate campaign must feature images of her and her family “in rural settings with rural-oriented imagery” because the Atlanta-based candidate will struggle to connect with rural voters.
These may sound like attacks from the Senate candidate’s Republican rival, but in fact, those are a few of the concerns expressed in her own campaign plan, which sources say was posted online briefly in December and appears to have been drafted earlier that month. Drawing on the insights of Democratic pollsters, strategists, fundraisers, and consultants, the document contains a series of memos addressed to Nunn and her senior advisers.
From all appearances, the document was intended to remain confidential. It outlines the challenges inherent in getting Nunn, who grew up mostly in Bethesda, Md., elected to the Senate in a state with a large rural population. Her father, Sam Nunn, was elected to the Senate when she was six, and Michelle Nunn attended Washington’s prestigious National Cathedral School and then the University of Virginia and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government before returning to Georgia to do nonprofit work and, now, to seek higher office.
The documents reveal the campaign’s most sensitive calculations. Much of the strategizing in the Georgia contest, as is typical in southern politics, revolves around race. But the Nunn memos are incredibly unguarded. One is from Diane Feldman, a Democratic pollster and strategist who counts among her clients Minnesota senator Al Franken, South Carolina representative James Clyburn, and former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Feldman, who did not return calls seeking comment, is frank in her characterization of the demographic groups — Jews, Asians, African Americans, Latinos, and gays — that are essential to a Democratic victory. The Nunn campaign declined to comment about the document on the record.
The campaign’s finance plan draws attention to the “tremendous financial opportunity” in the Jewish community and identifies Jews as key fundraisers. It notes, however, that “Michelle’s position on Israel will largely determine the level of support here.” That’s a position she has yet to articulate — her message on the subject is marked “TBD” in the document — and Israel goes unmentioned on her campaign website.
Asians are also identified as key fundraisers. The community is described as “very tight,” one in which people work to “become citizens quickly.” Nunn’s strategists also say there is a “huge opportunity” to raise money from gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals, who are described as having “substantial resources.”
This graphic, labeled “confidential and proprietary,” comes from the BlueLabs group, an analytics, data, and technology company founded by former Obama campaign staffers. It is included in the document’s “voter activation and mobilization” memo.
As southern whites have moved to the right, Democrats have been forced to cobble together a coalition of minority voters. Feldman recommends as a goal winning just 30 percent of the white vote while working to increase turnout among African Americans and Latinos. So while Jews, Asians, and gays are characterized as potential “fundraisers,” African Americans and Hispanics are the ones the campaign needs to get to the polls in historic numbers, the document makes clear.
“This constituency group is critical,” it says of the African Americans who make up much of Georgia’s Democratic base, adding that Nunn must win “a very high percentage of the African-American vote” and attract “a large number of voters who do not typically turn out in an off-election year.” The plan puts a particular emphasis on black clergy. It also highlights the need to “generate passion and enthusiasm” for Nunn in the black community. And it raises concern that Hispanics have not yet been “appropriately engaged” on her behalf.
That concern is reflective of the phenomenon that Bo Moore, who served as political director for former Georgia senator Paul Coverdell and as a strategist for Phil Gramm’s presidential campaign, describes as the “two Georgias”: Atlanta and the rest of the state. “Metro Atlanta is made up mostly of transplants from other parts of the country and then everything south and east of Atlanta is more traditional, rural, and southern,” he says. African Americans also constitute over half of Atlanta’s urban population.
The memos express concern that Nunn, who lives in an upper-class Atlanta neighborhood, will struggle to appeal to voters outside of the city. A document from the direct-mail firm Ambrosino Muir Hansen Crounse recommends sending small postcards featuring “Michelle and her family in rural settings with rural-oriented imagery” to “combat the notion that she is an Atlanta-based candidate uninterested in, or unfamiliar with, the rural parts of the state.”
To compensate for her difficulties with rural white voters, Nunn’s strategists emphasize the need to turn out blacks and Hispanics. “They know that in order to have a chance of winning, they’ve got to change the turnout from what it would ordinarily be in a midterm election,” Kerwin Swint, a professor of politics at Atlanta’s Kennesaw State University, said, when asked about the document’s conclusions. Former Democratic senator Max Cleland won 30 percent of the white vote when he ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 2002, but since then no Georgia Democratic Senate candidate has come within striking distance of that number: In 2008, Jim Martin won just 26 percent of the white vote and in 2004, Denise Majette won less than a quarter of it. As the daughter of an enormously popular former senator, though, Nunn has the potential to pull it off.
Her strategists are optimistic that the media won’t prove much of an obstacle. They write that at some point her opponent, who at the time the document was written had yet to be determined, will be “shoveling research” against her. But they say they anticipate they will often have “fair warning” about negative news stories and can work to “kill or muddy” them.
“I would love to know what kind of already-formed relationships they have in Atlanta and even in the national media that they’re planning on using as sources and conduits of information,” Swint says. “It’s certainly interesting to see it in writing like that.”