Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter will challenge Gov. Nathan Deal next year in a move that catapults the gubernatorial contest into the national spotlight and tests whether Georgia’s changing demographics can loosen the Republican Party’s 12-year grip on the state’s highest office.
Carter’s decision, which he announced Wednesday in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is another step along the trail forged by his famous grandfather Jimmy Carter, who was elected to the state Senate and then the Governor’s Mansion before winning the presidency.
“We can’t wait as a state,” said Jason Carter, who formally announced his candidacy Thursday. “The bottom line is we can’t afford four more years of an economy that’s not working for the middle class and an education system that’s underfunded. It’s not about politics. It’s about making sure we can get the state that we need.”
Carter, 38, becomes the second high-profile Democratic scion to compete for a spot on Georgia’s 2014 ticket. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, is her party’s front-runner in the crowded contest to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
Carter, who is not stepping down from office, pitches himself as a fiscal conservative who will revamp an education funding system he derides as a “shell game” and restore trust in the government. The latter is a subtle nod to allegations by current and former ethics commission staffers that Deal’s office improperly interfered with the agency probing complaints against him.
“We want a Georgia that’s at its best,” Carter said. “And Georgia at its best invests in education, it doesn’t cut billions out of the classrooms, it has an economy that works for the middle class and it always has an honest government.”
Carter faces the task of convincing voters who have elected Republicans to every statewide office that Democrats are worthy of a return to power. He’ll be forced to confront questions about whether it’s too soon for a gubernatorial bid in a state that gave Mitt Romney a resounding victory just last year. And he must try to keep pace with Deal, who has hit the fundraising circuit to boost the $1.1 million he had in his campaign coffers in July.
Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson said Thursday the governor intends to focus on “keeping Georgia the No. 1 place to do business,” a mantra he repeats around the state.
“We have governed conservatively but we’ve governed pragmatically and we’ve governed with an open door policy. And people have noticed we have something in office who is mature and capable and has a record of success to run on,” said Robinson. “And he will have a vision for the next four years we will make evident.”
Deal, a former nine-term congressman from Gainesville, handily defeated former Gov. Roy Barnes in 2010 and was expected by many to coast to a second term after largely pacifying his party’s tea party elements while holding the GOP line on most of the contentious issues.
Yet even before Carter’s entrance, the gubernatorial contest was certain to be lively.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington was the first to challenge Deal, hoping to ride a wave of anti-incumbent discontent to oust the governor in the GOP primary. Next in was state Schools Superintendent John Barge, one of the governor’s top GOP rivals, who made the funding of education the centerpiece of his campaign.
And waiting for the eventual GOP nominee in November likely will be Carter. (Former state Sen. Connie Stokes, the first Democrat to announce against Deal, said Thursday she would instead challenge Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.)
Deal, for his part, has campaigned across the state with an air of inevitability and has yet to outline many second-term initiatives beyond a push in 2015 to overhaul the school funding formula. The 71-year-old has cast the turmoil wracking the ethics commission as an internal dispute involving “personal agendas” from employees not under his oversight.
At events, Deal credits tax breaks and incentives he’s promoted with helping to create about 175,000 jobs since he took office. And this week he celebrated a magazine’s ranking of Georgia as the nation’s leading place to do business, saying he fulfilled a campaign vow.
“We’re just at the beginning,” Deal said at the event. “We’re going to continue to grow, and we’re going to continue to get better.”
Carter’s political career began in 2009 when he announced a bid to succeed state Sen. David Adelman, who was tapped to be the U.S. ambassador to Singapore. He secured the endorsement of prominent Jewish leaders, allaying the suspicions of some voters in the DeKalb County district angry at his grandfather’s criticism of Israeli policy, and helped broker a formal apology from the ex-president to the Jewish community.
He won in a four-way race in 2010 to claim a spot in the Senate, and he quickly became one of his party’s most outspoken leaders on its top legislative priorities. He advocated for an income cap for the HOPE scholarship that would grant full tuition to needier students, and he challenged GOP efforts to undo legislation aimed at protecting minority voters.
Whether his grandfather will be an asset or liability in the eyes of Georgians remains unknown. The elder Carter canvassed door to door with his grandson days before the 2010 election, and he’s popular among many Georgia Democrats. But, like Michelle Nunn’s family connection, the biggest benefit will likely be Carter’s ability to tap his grandfather’s donor network.
“He’s my grandfather and he cares about me and we talk,” the younger Carter said. “But at the end of the day, this campaign will be about getting Georgia back to where it needs to be. It’s about the future and not my family.”
The former president said in a statement Thursday he was excited about his grandson’s candidacy and that the state would “greatly benefit from a smart and fresh leader” with a focus on education, the economy and transparency.
With his announcement, Carter joins Nunn to become the first of a crop of young Democrats testing a statewide run. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams are often seen as candidates for higher office, though both seem likely to wait another cycle or two before running statewide.
There’s a reason many Democrats are considering a run down the road.
The white proportion of voters shrunk 9 points to 66 percent from 2002 to 2010, and the dive was even more pronounced during presidential election years. About 44 percent of Georgia residents are now minorities — up 7 points in the past decade — and nonwhites could outnumber whites here by 2020.
But Carter said he believes frustrated voters are more than ready for a change now.
“I wouldn’t be getting in this race if I didn’t think I was going to win,” Carter said. “I’m still mad that I finished second in my law school class. I’m not in this to finish second. I think we have every opportunity to win.”
Jason Carter, 38
Carter is a ninth-generation Georgian who received his undergraduate degree from Duke University and his law degree from the University of Georgia. A grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, he served in the Peace Corps in South Africa and later wrote a book about the country. He works for the litigation firm Bondurant, Mixson & Ellmore and was first elected to the state Senate in May 2010. He and his wife, Kate, have two young sons.