Gov. Nathan Deal’s bid for another term starts and ends in the North Georgia hills that have been at the center of his political base for decades. And he’s taking the cradle of his political career personally.
The governor from Gainesville used big numbers from the region to lift him above a crowded Republican gubernatorial field in 2010. But his re-election bid is complicated by two GOP opponents who also lay claim to the vote-rich Republican stronghold.
Deal and his two intraparty rivals — Dalton Mayor David Pennington and state School Superintendent John Barge — have crisscrossed the region for months, holding fundraisers, stumping at community events and meeting with business owners to beef up their conservative credentials.
Yet the governor turned it up a notch Friday with a three-city swing that started in Pennington’s territory in Dalton and continued through Barge’s stomping grounds of Rome and Cartersville. At each stop, the governor highlighted recent jobs announcements and hosted local notables . Implicit was the statement that he wouldn’t cede any ground to rivals, and he would use the megaphone of his office to amplify that message.
“In the downturned economy, and in one of the worst recessions that most of us have had in our lifetimes, I think this shows the resurgence of our state and the vitality of the industries that we have,” Deal said during the stop in Dalton celebrating a carpet manufacturer’s decision to add 420 jobs.
This boisterousness over jobs deals has rubbed his rivals the wrong way. Pennington bristles that the governor is taking credit for jobs that private businesses create but not for the state’s unemployment rate, which hovers about a percentage point above the national average.
And Barge took the unusual position that Pennington deserves more credit than the governor for fostering new growth in carpet country. The superintendent said Deal is trying to turn the jobs announcements into a vindication of his first three years in office.
“If he wants to take credit for the good stuff that’s happening, he also has to realize that things still aren’t rosy,” Barge said. “And quite frankly, the underlying message of his campaign is that if he’s going to take the fight up here, he obviously feels vulnerable up here. And there are a lot of unhappy people here.”
The northern third of the state has become the epicenter of Georgia’s political power, and that tectonic shift away from the more rural south has reshaped the state’s politics. Every statewide constitutional officer now lives in metro Atlanta or farther north, as do most legislative leaders from both parties. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Moultrie is the most prominent Georgia politician from south of metro Atlanta, and he’s retiring next year.
At the same time, the region has become a stronghold of the tea party, giving a hard-right conservative such as Pennington hope that he can peel enough voters away from Deal to force a runoff.
“This is where all the growth has been,” said Barry Loudermilk, a former state senator from nearby Cassville now running for an open U.S. House seat. “And this region will only keep turning darker red.”
It’s a lesson that Deal’s camp holds dear. The nine-term congressman edged out former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel by roughly 2,500 votes in the 2010 runoff thanks to strong support in North Georgia. He took his home county of Hall by almost 80 percent of the vote, and he swept most other counties along the upper band of the state. That helped offset Handel’s strong performance in metro Atlanta and other urban pockets.
Galvanizing those voters early could pay dividends for Republicans beyond May 20, the likely date of the GOP primary. Deal, who has delicately tried not to alienate the tea party wing while keeping the establishment content, is favored to win his party’s nod. But Carl Cavalli, a University of North Georgia political scientist, said a disaffected North Georgia could give state Sen. Jason Carter, the likely Democratic nominee with a famous pedigree, an opening.
“This is the most heavily Republican area in the state, and any Republican candidate needs this region to survive,” Cavalli said. “This is Deal’s home territory, and it would be disastrous if he were to somehow struggle in this area — not just in the primary, but the general election, too.”
Deal, for his part, is playing up his focus on the region. His office said he’s visited northwest Georgia 25 times since taking office and northeast Georgia, where he often returns on weekends, dozens more. The governor brushed aside the notion that the more recent appearances were simply political stagecraft, though he conceded they could help him next spring.
“Is that good politics? Maybe. But it’s also good business,” Deal said. “And quite frankly, I’m in the business of making Georgia the No. 1 state in the nation.”