US midterm elections: Rising young Democrats threaten Republican grip on Deep South

GOP strongholds of Georgia and Louisiana are the key to control of the Senate

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We might have been at a boxing bout. “Three minutes, ladies and gentlemen, three minutes.” That was the moderator for a double bill of political debates inside a gaping sports arena at the Georgia National Fairgrounds here trying to hush the thousands who had come to watch and yell for their candidate. “Take your seats please!”

His job didn’t get any easier as contestants for a soon-to-be-vacant US Senate seat – the Democrat Michelle Nunn and the Republican business executive David Perdue – triggered rolling waves of jeers and cheers as they each tried to deliver their knockout punch. Hardly less raucous was a second debate between candidates for governor.

Georgia, you would think, should be sleepwalking towards the 4 November midterm elections, it being the cornerstone of the Republican fortress that is the Deep South. Yet the assumption that no Democrat can win here is suddenly under threat. The peach state is looking purplish if not quite blue – and the nation is paying attention.

It’s not just to see if that GOP southern stronghold can be breached. It’s also because, with Ms Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, seemingly in a dead heat with Mr Perdue, there is a chance that Georgia, and perhaps also Louisiana, could delay the final answer to the single most urgent question of these elections – which party will wind up controlling the US Senate – far beyond November.

Both in the midst of extremely close Senate races where the candidates from the two main parties are also facing competition from independent runners, Georgia and Louisiana require run-offs if no candidate takes 50 per cent of the votes or more. A Louisiana run-off would be in December. In Georgia it wouldn’t be until next January.

Democrats, meanwhile, hardly know which of these two main-event contests to be more excited about. The battle for governor has a barely tested state senator named Jason Carter – the grandson of a certain former President – surging against the incumbent Republican Nathan Deal. All the polls now put them exactly neck and neck.

Affecting both races are shifting demographics. Only 54 per cent of registered voters in Georgia are white, and more likely to be Republican, compared to 78 per cent 20 years ago. Georgia, and in particularly the Atlanta area, has also seen an influx of mostly young and often progressively minded residents from other states.

But Mr Deal is also struggling with his record. Latest federal numbers showed that in August Georgia had an unemployment rate of 8.2 per cent, the highest of any state in the nation. It was a reality that Mr Carter repeatedly hammered home at the fairgrounds here in Perry, slap in the middle of the state. “How long,” he demanded of Mr Deal, “do they [the voters] have to wait in your economy to feel the benefits that you’re talking about?”

In her debate, Ms Nunn took every opportunity to raise a deposition given by Mr Perdue in a bankruptcy case 10 years ago in which he said he had built his career around outsourcing US jobs overseas and was proud of it. “David in his deposition talked about all these countries – Thailand and Singapore and India and Pakistan – but not once did he talk about creating jobs in the United States,” she noted.

It was a powerful line of attack. But so too was Mr Perdue’s jab that Ms Nunn was “hand-picked and funded” by President Barack Obama and that if she goes to Washington she wouldn’t be about to “bite the hand that feeds her”. She would be the President’s “rubber stamp”. The unpopularity of Mr Obama here and of his healthcare law remains a dead weight for Ms Nunn, who, like Mr Carter, tilts away from overtly liberal positions.

There was little divining the winner of either of the debates. Reporters looking for a “spin-room” for insight into the campaigns could instead step outside where – the best political joke of the night – the Spinners were live in concert. Arguably Mr Deal and Mr Perdue had corralled the largest bands of supporters but Democrats in the crowd were bursting with anticipation. They know that if Ms Nunn succeeds in taking a seat that has long been Republican, then the mathematics for a takeover of the Senate by Republicans – they need a net gain of six seats – could be undone.

“This state has the power to turn itself blue if they want it, but it’s a question of getting people to pay attention and to listen,” said Ashlee Collins, 26, a supply teacher in Perry who will be voting for both Democrat candidate. That means getting a high turnout. A recent surge in voter registrations in the state suggests that might happen.

The former governor Sonny Perdue, a cousin of David, got the stakes too. “This race in Georgia is critical for the future of this state but also the future of the nation,” he told The Independent between posing for pictures with supporters.

“The Republicans are looking forward to taking over the Senate but, as well as picking up seats, they have to preserve what they already have. You can’t go two steps forward and one step back.”