ATHENS, Ga. – New Republican nominee David Perdue and Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn used the first day of the general election campaign to retool the "outsider" arguments they've used to reach this point in a race that will help determine who controls the Senate for the final years of the Obama administration.
Their first targets: each other's private sector experience.
Perdue was a journeyman corporate CEO; Nunn is a nonprofit executive on leave. Neither has held public office, making Georgia's Senate race the only one in the country to feature two self-styled "outsiders" who now must find other distinctions to capitalize on voter discontent.
"I do think that our records are very different," Nunn told reporters in Athens, a liberal enclave that is home to the University of Georgia.
Nunn, 47, is on a leave of absence as CEO of Republican former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light foundation, which coordinates various volunteer efforts.
"My record, obviously, is around building communities, lifting people up, trying to make a difference, working in collaboration with folks from the other side," she said in offering a more muted version of earlier criticism from Perdue's primary rivals who noted that he presided over layoffs and outsourcing.
Perdue, 64, downplayed Nunn's resume as inferior to his.
"My issue isn't so much how she ran that organization," he said in a Wednesday interview. "It's just that that leadership does not prepare you, in my mind, to deal with issues we have in a free-enterprise system. I want to focus on why my background is more appropriate to lead in the Senate in regard to bringing economic and free-enterprise solutions to fix the problems that we have with the economy today."
It was the opening salvo of a general election matchup the day after Perdue defeated Rep. Jack Kingston in a Republican runoff to set up one of the nation's most-watched races in the 2014 midterm elections.
The prospects of Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, winning in the GOP-leaning state are tantalizing for Democrats as they try to hold onto a majority for the last two years of Obama's presidency. Republicans need six seats to regain a majority and know they can ill afford to lose retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss's seat. A little-known Libertarian, Amanda Swafford, also is on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Of the dozen or so competitive races that will determine Senate control, only Georgia's involves two major party nominees who have never held elected office. Perdue defeated three congressman, including Kingston, on the way to the nomination. Nunn has built her campaign running against Washington discord and said often that the Republican primary was "a race to extremes." Now, both candidates must find new, or at least modified, appeals to capitalize on voter discontent.
Besides questioning Nunn's credentials, Perdue focused his ire on President Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, a noticeable departure from a primary campaign in which he hammered Kingston and other longtime politicians as part of the problem in Washington.
"The thing I am going to do is prosecute the failed record of the Democratic administration over the last six years," Perdue said at GOP unity event sponsored by Georgia Republicans. "She's going to have to own up to that and ... defend fixing Obamacare. I'm going to talk about repealing it. She's going to talk about fixing Dodd-Frank, and I'm going to talk about repealing it."
At her stops, Nunn massaged her usual critique of partisan rancor to fit Perdue. "We're going to give voters something different, as opposed to what they saw the last nine weeks" during the bitter Republican runoff. "Georgia's motto is 'Wisdom, Justice, Moderation,'" she reminded her supporters. "I think those are pretty good values."
Third-party groups also injected themselves into the general election, after spending more than $8 million on the primary already.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee rolled out a 2½-minute online video that Nunn's more subtle critique of Perdue's career. The video spliced together debate clips of Kingston and other Republican primary opponents attacking Perdue as an out-of-touch executive who enriched himself leading companies that lost U.S. jobs.
Nunn was targeted for supporting Obama's health care law in a new ad by the Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC backed by the Ricketts family, whose patriarch, Joe Ricketts, founded TD Ameritrade and now owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team. It denounces Nunn as "the last thing Georgia taxpayers need."
Several Democratic senators made fundraising appeals for her Wednesday.
Nunn, meanwhile, got a fundraising boost from baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. The former Atlanta Brave, who still lives in Georgia, asked supporters in an email to contribute $7.55, a nod to his 755 home runs.