This year marks the century anniversary of directly electing senators. For the first 125 years of the Republic state legislatures elected senators. In 1914 when the public first got to vote directly for senators, Georgians choose both of its senators since Augustus Bacon’s death earlier in the year necessitated a special election.
As occurred a century ago, the Senate election this year marks a first. Never before have Georgia voters confronted a less politically experienced set of options among Senate candidates. Neither Democrat Michelle Nunn, Republican David Perdue nor Libertarian Amanda Swafford has held elective office. Republican voters clearly chose to go with a political neophyte when they rejected three sitting members of Congress and a former statewide official during the nominating process.
Of the 15 individuals Georgians have elected to the Senate from Georgia since 1914, four previously served as governor and five, including both of the current senators, advanced from service in the U.S. House. Sam Nunn, Paul Coverdell, Max Cleland and William Harris had previously won election to the General Assembly as had Richard Russell, Johnny Isakson, Zell Miller and Thomas Hardwick. Walter George had served on the Georgia Court of Appeals and gave up a seat on the state Supreme Court to campaign for the Senate in 1922. Only Mack Mattingly, the first Republican elected since Reconstruction, had never won office but in 1980 voters did have the option of backing incumbent and former governor Herman Talmadge. Although Mattingly had never held office, he had more electoral experience than the Senate candidates on this November ballot since he had opposed Bill Stuckey in a 1966 bid for a south Georgia congressional seat.
Since neither major party candidate has held public office, it is hardly surprising that they have vocational careers atypical of those previously sent to the Senate from Georgia. Nunn, should she win, would be the first Georgia senator with a background in the non-profit sector. Perdue would not be Georgia’s first senator with a business background. He would join Isakson, Mattingly, Coverdell and William Harris as men with business careers. Nine Georgians elected to the Senate had careers in law, historically the most common background for members of Congress.
Perdue and Nunn see their careers as offering advantages to Georgians with Perdue vowing to use his business expertise to create jobs and improve the functioning of the federal government. Nunn points to her work running a major volunteer organization as indicative of an ability to bring diverse interests together to work toward a common goal.
If Michelle Nunn triumphs, she will not be the first woman senator from Georgia although she will be the first woman to be elected to the Senate from the Peach State. Georgia holds the record for having had the first female senator. Following the death of Tom Watson in 1922, Governor Hardwick, a former senator, appointed 87 year old Rebecca Felton to the vacancy. Felton barely managed to achieve the historic first. Unlike today, the Senate of nine decades ago did not meet for most of the year. By the time the Senate reconvened, Walter George had won election to the remainder of Watson’s term. George, however, agreed to delay his swearing in by a day, allowing Felton to take the seat. During her brief tenure, Felton addressed the Senate promising that the women who came after her would make the body a better institution. “Let me say . . . that when women of the country come and sit with you . . . I promise you that you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism and you will get unstinted usefulness.”
Even more than a century ago, the Senate was often referred to as a millionaires’ club. If Perdue joins the upper chamber he may be the wealthiest individual sent from Georgia. He would also be the first Georgia entrepreneur whose ability to make a fortune in business translates into political success. As I noted in a previous article, Georgia’s electorate has not previously favored candidates who had reaped great rewards in business.
This year’s Senate election also marks the first time that both major party candidates have lived outside of Georgia for significant periods. Although both Perdue and Nunn are natives of Houston County, but they lived outside Georgia for extended periods. When Nunn’s father went to the Senate in 1972 she moved to the Washington area and did not return permanently to Georgia until after earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia. Perdue’s career took him away from Georgia with stints in Asia and Europe. Life experiences outside Georgia may provide the candidates broader perspectives on policy options.
While 2014 marks the first pairing of candidates with extensive life experiences away from the Peach State, a couple of previous senators spent all of their formative years outside Georgia. Both Coverdell and Mattingly came to Georgia after completing their educations. Hoke Smith was a third non-native Georgian, having moved to Atlanta at the age of 13 after his father lost a job at the University of North Carolina.
Regardless of who wins in November – or if a runoff becomes necessary with the winner chosen in January – Georgia will have a very different kind of senator next year. The lack of office-holding experience will necessitate some on-the-job learning about how to function successfully in an environment where most of the players have spent decades in politics during which they have learned to function in a setting in which seniority is important, alliances are necessary, and pressures and expectations impinge from all directions.
Charles S. Bullock, III
Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science
Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor
Co-author of Elections to Open Seats in the U.S. House: Where the Action Is.