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August 15, 2014 9:58 AM Zell’s a-Poppin’ Again

By Ed Kilgore

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather:

Former governor and U.S. senator Zell Miller on Thursday endorsed Democrat Michelle Nunn in the U.S. Senate race, citing her bipartisan approach as an antidote for Washington gridlock…..
In a morning phone call from his Young Harris, Ga., home, the 82-year-old Miller cited Nunn’s work as the head of a major volunteer organization - founded by former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
“I have great respect for her dedication to public service, and her dedication to bipartisan results,” Miller said. “I think she shares a lot of characteristics with her father….”
The Nunn campaign is taking immediate advantage of Miller’s endorsement with a TV ad blitz - to counter a $2.5 million televised attack by the National Republican Senate Committee, denouncing her as “Obama’s senator.”

This report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway broke late yesterday, and I immediately started getting some questions from friends who were aware that I worked for both Zell and for Michelle’s father Sam. I don’t have any inside knowledge of what happened here (I haven’t spoken to either former boss in a good while. Last I heard from Miller was about a decade ago, when he sent a very gracious personal note acknowledging a not-terribly-positive review I wrote of a book he had published.). Nunn’s campaign chairman Gordon Giffin noted that Zell and the elder Nunn participated in a “coordinated campaign” in 1990, and were fellow early boosters of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and that’s all true. I have a strong personal memory of attending a monster rally in Decatur, Georgia, near the end of that campaign, and watching Miller introduce Nunn, who introduced Clinton. But that was all a long time ago, and I never thought of the two men as being particularly close. Maybe it’s actually all about Michelle and not her father.

I would observe that of all his accomplishments as governor of Georgia (his crypto- and not-so-crypto-Republican behavior began quite a bit later) he was probably proudest of two things: the HOPE scholarship program, of course; but also his record in appointing women to the judiciary and other positions. Michelle’s exactly the kind of person Miller would have gone out of his way to promote.

When being asked about the endorsement, Miller immediately made it clear that he would also be supporting incumbent Republican governor Nathan Deal, who’s in a surprisingly close contest with Democrat Jason Carter. So his endorsement of Nunn is being interpreted as a simultaneous non-endorsement of Carter. Galloway and others have speculated about some bad blood (and a lack of any real overlap in Georgia government) between Zell and Jimmy being a factor here. I think a simpler explanation is that Deal is a fellow Appalachian landsman from North Georgia who served as a Democrat in the state senate when Miller was presiding officer as Lieutenant Governor, and was actually president pro tem of that chamber when Zell was elected governor. After that, Deal was Miller’s congressman for eighteen years—first as a Democrat, then as a Republican. There’s zero reason he wouldn’t support him now.

In any event, the question of the day is whether Miller’s endorsement of Nunn will matter. Now certainly candidate endorsements are perpetually overrated in electoral politics, particularly now when there are relatively few “persuadable” voters. Miller’s support is very unlikely to help Nunn mobilize the Democratic “base.”

On the other hand, Miller was in statewide office for all but one of thirty straight years, longer even than Sam Nunn. And Georgians over the age of 40 all remember him. He likely retains a personal following in the North Georgia mountains, a place where Democratic support has entirely collapsed. And most importantly, Republicans are about to hit Nunn with a massive ad campaign accusing her of being a godless liberal in thrall to Barack Obama. That’s less credible now that she’s been endorsed by the man who founded “Democrats for Santorum” in 2006.

Last night on Twitter Paul Begala (with whom I did some collaborative speechwriting for Miller back when he was the most jaundiced of Yellow Dog Democrats) and I both observed we couldn’t remember Zell endorsing any Democrat since Max Cleland in 2002. So it’s quite the surprise, and that couldn’t hurt in a contest where Republicans will try very hard to keep voters in their accustomed patterns. We’ll see.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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