At 7.9 percent, Georgia has the highest unemployment rate in the country. That's the backdrop for two surprisingly competitive races -- for Senate and for governor -- in a state without a single Democrat in statewide office.
I spoke with voters and both Senate candidates to get a sense of what's behind the tight contests and how each side could pull out a victory.
Here are my three takeaways from the 'Meet the Voters' visit to the Peach State.
1) It's impossible to overstate how much the disappointing economy matters in this race.
It's almost surprising that Republican Gov. Nathan Deal isn't in MORE trouble here, with the state economy as stagnant as it is. Elections always come down to the pocketbook, but with widespread joblessness and shuttered factories, voters here -- even more than elsewhere in the country -- are looking for someone to blame. That's why Democrats' economic messages on issues like the minimum wage are keeping them competitive, and it's why former Dollar General CEO David Purdue is struggling over the outsourcing question. When voters are looking for a bad guy, the businessman who moved jobs to Asia is an easy villain.
Of course, Republicans are trying to get voters to point the finger at Washington and Democratic-supported regulations. And both Nunn and Perdue have their messages down cold on this front.
2) The Senate candidates are actually both impressive -- but they're both hoping for a quick resolution to what could be a long race.
In many contests around the country, voters can't be blamed for asking why they're stuck with candidates who just aren't top shelf political material. This isn't one of them: Michelle Nunn and David Perdue both come across as critical thinkers who genuinely don't want to become stereotypical politicians in all the wrong ways. (Of course, that could always change once one ends up in Washington for a few years.) But these two collectively might be the strongest pair of Senate candidates in the country. You get the sense that whoever wins won't be a backbencher.
But the challenge for both Senate candidates will be withstanding the national spotlight if this becomes a runoff election that determines Senate control. If that happens, it will become a mini-presidential election, and the records already set by the eye-poppingly expensive North Carolina race this cycle will be shattered within weeks. That's an unpredictability neither candidate wants to face. And while both candidates have been able to keep their own personas relatively intact, they could easily become political caricatures once $50 million is dropped in this state during a runoff.
3) Georgia is on its way to battleground status, but it's not clear that this is Democrats' year.
Demographics are moving in Democrats' favor here. They can definitely get to 45 percent in a statewide election at this point without much lift, but it's much less sure that they can get to 50 percent, even with the strong candidates they have in Nunn and gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter. For Nunn, the key would likely be peeling away enough older white female voters who remember supporting her dad, beloved Sen. Sam Nunn. Even more than Carter (grandson to the former president), Nunn's name recognition gives her a double bonus: people trust the name, and they know her dad was a very different kind of Democrat than the current unpopular inhabitant of the White House. If Nunn can't do it this cycle, Democrats may just have to wait for the demographics to catch up in order to finally win here.
- Carrie Dann contributed