Michelle Nunn's best chance at victory always lay in Georgia's Republican primary. If controversy-courting congressmen Paul Broun or Phil Gingrey won the GOP's nomination for Senate, officials in both parties thought Nunn would have begun the general election as a surefire front-runner.
The Peach State Democrat now knows it's not going to be that easy.
On Tuesday, both men unceremoniously crashed out of the GOP primary, falling well short of businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston. The top two finishers now face a one-on-one battle in a July 22 run-off for the right to move on to the general eleciton.
But no matter which Republican wins, the most important part for the general election is over: The GOP isn't going to nominate another Todd Akin or Christine O'Donnell—the type of candidate likely to commit an election-losing gaffe that would hand a Senate seat to the Democrats. And that leaves Nunn, who won her own largely uncontested primary Tuesday, to prove that the viability of her campaign was never dependent on Republicans screwing up another race.
It's possible she will succeed: Democrats consider her one of the party's best recruits of 2014, and even Republicans openly acknowledge that Nunn has run an excellent campaign so far. The question now is whether her centrist visage and famous last name—she's the daughter of popular former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn—are enough to win over a largely red-state electorate in an undeniably tough year for Democrats.
"I just think the demographics of this state favor the Republican nominee and make it an uphill battle, but I wouldn't say it's a forgone conclusion," said Eric Tanenblatt, an Atlanta-based Republican power broker.
Few Democrats would argue Gingrey and Broun weren't Nunn's ideal opponents, but they're adamant she still has a shot at victory in November. She'll benefit from a two-month period when Perdue and Kingston will fight each other, rather than her, until the runoff election. That battle, Democrats hope, will force the eventual GOP nominee to adopt an even more conservative agenda unpalatable to a general-election electorate.
"The reality is, no matter who makes it past today, you're going to have a historic two-month runoff where the top two vote-getters are going to be running further and further to the right in a very low turnout race," said Tim Alborg, a Georgia-based Democratic strategist.
While the runoff risk has some Republicans openly encouraging GOP-aligned outside groups—like American Crossroads or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—to step in and start teeing off on Nunn now, that looks unlikely. "We're more focused on the general election" said a source inside one of the outside groups.
And for some Republicans, that decision to stay out the race reflects a confidence that Nunn's chances died with Broun's and Gingrey's candidacies. Why waste valuable resources on a race already tilting heavily in the GOP's direction?
Democrats in Washington have considered Georgia, along with Kentucky, their best opportunity to pick up a Republican-held seat in this year's midterm election (the seat is held by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss). That's partly a function of the party's dearth of options to play offense this cycle.
From June through April, Nunn raised a prodigious $6.3 million—more than anything her GOP counterparts compiled during the primary. And she's already put the money toward brandishing her image as a centrist. Her first ads have nary a mention of President Obama but they do mention a Bush—George H.W. Bush, with whom she worked as CEO of the Points of Light Charity.
The ads have done some good: An NBC News/Marist poll from earlier this month found Nunn narrowly trailing Perdue by 4 points, 45 percent to 41 percent while in a dead heat with Kingston, at 43 percent each.
Even if Nunn is seen as having an equal chance against Perdue, Kingston, or Handel, she'd run a very different campaign against each one. The play against Perdue is straightforward: His mockery of the idea that a high-school graduate could be a U.S. senator, a major issue in the GOP primary, opens him to accusations that he's an elitist out of touch with the public. Kingston, an 11-term congressman, is vulnerable against the charge that he's a consummate Washington insider.
Still, there are already signs, runoff or not, that Nunn's free run is nearing an end. In a battery of interviews, she's declined to say whether she would have voted for Obamacare, a position that's likely to become untenable between now and Election Day.