ATLANTA (AP) — Democratic Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn in Georgia declined to answer questions Monday about whether she would have voted for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, as candidates in six states went through the final paces of bruising primary campaigns for congressional and statewide offices.
Seven Georgia Republicans — all of whom have called for repeal of the law Republicans deride as "Obamacare" — are in their own scramble ahead of a Tuesday primary vote that is expected to whittle the field to two runoff candidates.
In Kentucky, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was poised to put away tea party challenger Matt Bevin and turn his attention to the fall.
There are gubernatorial primary contests on the ballot in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Idaho, Georgia and Oregon on the busiest day of the primary season to date.
Besides Kentucky and Georgia, Senate races are atop the ballot in Arkansas, Idaho and Oregon on Tuesday — preliminary contests that will shape a fall campaign in which Senate Republicans aim to gain six seats, a Senate majority, and a more muscular say over Obama's final two years in office.
Republicans can't afford to lose in Kentucky or Georgia. Democrats view Kentucky's Alison Lundergan Grimes and Nunn as their best — and perhaps only — opportunities to swipe seats held by Republicans.
In GOP-leaning Georgia, Nunn's smooth glide to the Democratic nomination bumped up against her awkward refusal in a weekend interview with NBC News to say whether she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act. When asked if she planned to answer the question and why she refused to do so, Nunn said in an interview with The Associated Press that she plans on "continuing to answer the question by talking about where we need to go in the future and how we need to move forward."
Nunn has previously said she believes states, including Georgia, should agree to expand Medicaid insurance eligibility as part of the law. Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who also faces a primary Tuesday, has refused.
Nunn's rhetorical dancing on the issue underscores her challenge as she tries to pull an upset in a state Obama lost twice, even if by single-digit margins. And the quick reaction among political observers reflects the high-profile nature of the race amid the struggle for Senate control. Nunn also dismissed criticism from her primary opponents that she has not been strong enough in embracing Democratic ideals as she crafts a centrist campaign.
"I believe that people in Georgia want somebody who will be an independent voice for Georgia, who is going to take account of the facts and listen to the people of Georgia and try and get things done that matter to them, and reach across the aisle and be willing to actually work in a bipartisan fashion," Nunn said.
Georgia has been a reliably Republican state in recent years and the federal health care law as a whole remains unpopular. A recent poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 61 percent of voters believe it needs major modifications or should be eliminated. Just 9 percent said it was working well.
Despite that attention and eye-popping sums of money spent, a relatively small number of voters will help determine the primary outcomes in Kentucky and Georgia.
Candidates are making multiple campaign stops urging voters defy forecasts of abysmal participation in the elections. Midterm primary turnout is traditionally low, but widespread antipathy toward the president and Congress is expected to dampen it further.
"Voters feel very distrustful right now and voters are frustrated and angry right now," said former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, one of the front-runners running to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
Another top Republican contender, Rep. Jack Kingston, said Monday: "We're trying to work as hard as we can for a reasonable turnout."
Republican hopefuls in Georgia have spent more than $14 million combined trying to reach about 5 million active registered voters in a state with 10 million residents. Yet several candidates and their aides say they expect 600,000 or fewer ballots cast, with the top two vote getters advancing to a July 22 runoff. About 680,000 ballots were cast in a heated Republican primary for governor four years ago when there were 4.9 million active registered voters.
The eventual nominee is expected to face Nunn, former Sen. Sam Nunn's daughter, in November.
In Kentucky, McConnell is poised to dispatch challenger Matt Bevin after spending almost $10 million_also with a tepid turnout among the 1.2 million registered Republicans eligible to vote in the contest. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the state's chief election official and also McConnell's likely Democratic opponent in November, said she expects a maximum turnout of 30 percent for both party primaries.
Grimes said voters "are tired of the negativity that they see," using her official forecast to jab McConnell.
Voter requests for absentee ballots are down this year in Kentucky. Early voting in Georgia actually exceeded 2010 totals, though it's unclear whether to attribute that to increased interest or the campaigns' emphasis on taking advantage of the opportunity.
The primary is two months earlier than usual after state Republican leaders moved the date in hopes of keeping a divisive primary from dragging into the summer. "Voters aren't used to that change yet," Kingston said.
Polls suggest Kingston, Handel and businessman David Perdue will contend for runoff spots, though Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey are within striking distance.
Kingston expressed optimism that several races for lower offices, including the House seats he, Broun and Gingrey are giving up for their Senate bids, will attract enough voters to exceed turnout expectations.
Voting sites open at 7 a.m. local time in Georgia and 6 a.m. local time in Kentucky.
Democrats could look to frame low Republican vote totals as a counter to polls that suggest GOP voters are more enthusiastic about the midterms. Republicans typically have an inherent advantage in midterms, given that older, more conservative voters dominate the electorate in years when Democrats struggle to turn out more casual voters that cast ballots only in presidential election years.
Associated Press writer Adam Beam in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.