The Democratic Party’s long-shot hope to retake the Senate in 1996 became one seat harder Monday when the party’s most popular politician in Georgia, Sen. Sam Nunn, announced he would retire after this term.
“I know in my heart it is time to follow a new course,” Nunn told friends and politicians packed in the chamber of the state House of Representatives for the longawaited announcement.
Nunn’s exit brings to eight the number of Democrats who voluntarily are leaving the Senate when their terms end after the 1996 elections. The four open seats in the South - Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and now Georgia - are especially vulnerable because of the GOP’s dramatic growth in the region.
Nunn, who almost universally was considered unbeatable in the state, told reporters in March 1994 that he was considering leaving, and he repeated Monday that his motivation was almost entirely a personal desire for change.
“I would be 64-65 at the end of another term,” he said. “I don’t want to be recalled by the grim voter or the grim reaper.”
The Democrats’ loss of power in Congress was only one factor, he said. “The decision was hard enough and close enough that I wouldn’t want to say that nothing could have changed it, but I don’t know what it would have been,” Nunn said.
Nunn’s departure is a watershed.
“Nunn is the last of the great moderate Southern Democrats. This creates a huge hole for the party,” said Merle Black, a specialist on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.
An expert on national security and ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nunn, 57, has for years occupied a position near the ideological center of the Senate, a spot that allowed him to lead swing voters and amass great power.
Nunn warned that both parties could face new competition from a third party in the next four to six years if they don’t pay more attention to the large ideological middle ground that he believes most Americans occupy with him.
Even as the GOP is making a mistake to try to enact a tax cut while cutting entitlement programs like Medicare, Nunn said the Democrats are also to blame for making “a brain-dead defense of the status quo.”
Nunn, like President Clinton, helped organize a group of moderate Democrats, the Democratic Leadership Council, in an attempt to move the party rightward after the 1984 landslide re-election of President Reagan.
“He has been fighting the liberal wing of his party for over two decades,” Black said. “It’s been a losing battle.”
Indeed, after Clinton’s attempts to allow openly gay men and lesbians in the armed services and to reform health care, the Democrats saw their popularity plummet in the South as never before.
The number of Republicans in the Georgia congressional delegation has gone from one in 1990 to nine in 1995. Nunn is the only remaining white Democrat in the delegation.
The Southern realignment long promised by the GOP is a major reason control of Congress changed last year. When Nunn arrived in 1973, 15 of 22 Southern senators were Democrats. That has dropped to nine of 22 senators from the region.
In place of Nunn, the state’s most prominent politician is becoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich - whose futuristic, activist style of conservatism seems radical along-side Nunn’s traditionalism.
Ironically enough for a man asso ciated with a strong military, Nunn, like retired Gen. Colin Powell, often resisted its use - in Haiti, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf region.
In a statement, Clinton hailed Nunn for his “tireless devotion and steady leadership. He has earned the respect and appreciation of all Americans for his leadership in national security, defense and foreign policy.”
Nunn hasn’t decided what profes sional route to take, but he ruled out paid lobbying and promised to remain active in public policy.
Nunn said he also wanted to try his hand at writing. Joking about the new popularity of political books by Powell and Gingrich, Nunn added that “I might write two or three the way they’ve been going lately.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: STEPPING DOWN List of senators who have announced that they will not run for re-election: Democrats Paul Simon (Ill.) - Nov. 14, 1994 J. Bennett Johnson (La.) - Jan. 9, 1995 J. James Exon (Neb.) - March 17, 1995 Howell Heflin (Ala.) - March 29, 1995 David Pryor (Ark.) - April 21, 1995 Bill Bradley (N.J.) - Aug. 16, 1995 Claiborne Pell (R.I.) - Sept. 5, 1995 Sam Nunn (Ga.) - Oct. 9, 1995
Republicans Hank Brown (Colo.) - Dec. 20, 1994
Republicans Hank Brown (Colo.) - Dec. 20, 1994
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