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Could Democrat Michelle Nunn actually win Georgia Senate race?

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David Tulis/AP

(Read caption) Democratic candidate for Senate, Michelle Nunn (c.), with her daughter Elizabeth, greets early voters after she cast a ballot at Fulton County's Adamsville Recreation Center in Atlanta earlier this month.

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Overall, Senate races in the 2014 midterms aren’t looking good for Democrats. States the Democratic Party once targeted as winnable, such as Iowa, Arkansas, Colorado, and Alaska, are tilting toward Republican candidates. Control of the Senate itself hangs in the balance, and most major forecast models now predict the GOP has a greater than 60 percent chance of winning the chamber.

But something different is happening in Georgia.

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Georgia’s a red state that President Obama lost twice. Replacing retiring incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) with another Republican should be an easy task. But right now, polls say it isn’t. This fall, Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn has closed the gap with the GOP’s David Perdue.

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A CNN/ORC survey released Friday put Ms. Nunn ahead of Mr. Perdue by three percentage points, 47 to 44. An Atlanta Journal Constitution poll made public the same day had Perdue up by two points. Given margins of error, these polls are roughly compatible. The race is effectively a dead heat, with Nunn holding a one percentage point lead in RealClearPolitics’ rolling average of major polls.

Georgia is perhaps the closest Senate race in the country. It’s the only one the New York Times Upshot Senate forecast model rates as a pure 50-50 tossup.

What’s going on? For one thing, Nunn’s name seems to be weighing in her favor. She’s the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat who represented Georgia from 1972 to 1997 and served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Meanwhile Perdue, a wealthy businessman, has struggled to overcome some aspects of his past work. He’s said on camera that he was “proud” of outsourcing he carried out as CEO of a North Carolina-based textile firm that eventually went into bankruptcy.

“The clip has featured in Nunn ads flooding the Atlanta media market. Suddenly, Perdue’s biggest asset – his business career – has become a liability,” writes Michael Warren Friday in the right-leaning Weekly Standard.

But there’s a complicating factor here – Georgia law calls for a two-candidate runoff to decide the Senate race if no one candidate receives more than 50 percent. There is a third party candidate running, Libertarian Amanda Swafford, and she’s attracting about 4 to 5 percent of the vote in polls. That could be enough to keep the first-place finisher under the 50 percent threshold and trigger the runoff provision.

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Some analysts think it’s possible that Nunn, with her tiny lead in the polling average, could just manage 50 percent on Nov. 4. Nate Cohn at The Upshot says that minor party candidates in Georgia typically draw only around 2 percent of the vote, so that Ms. Swafford’s support may shrink when people actually go to the polls.

“Ms. Nunn’s odds might be a little better than the polls suggest,” Cohn writes.

Most pundits and party insiders think this race is headed to a runoff, however. If that happens, all predictions are moot: the runoff election won’t be until January, and will turn out a very different mix of voters than will troop to the polls on Nov. 4.

Previous general election runoffs in Georgia have generally produced a pattern of a gain of GOP voters and a Republican victory, writes Aaron Blake at the Washington Post’s "Fix" political blog. Given Perdue’s standing at the moment, that may mean he is playing for time and aiming at a final result in January 2015.

“A runoff in the Peach State has been as good as a GOP win for two decades,” writes Mr. Blake.