Dalton Mayor David Pennington wants to add his name to the list of tea party-flavored candidates who have knocked off powerful Republican incumbents. The conservative mayor is mounting a primary challenge against Gov. Nathan Deal with the message that the state’s economy has lagged under Deal’s watch.
Pennington faces difficult odds against Deal, who has $1.1 million in his campaign treasury and has made inroads with tea party leaders. But the mayor’s entry forces Deal to defend his record against a challenge from the right while balancing a general election run against an expected Democratic rival.
“Our leadership is failing us,” Pennington said Tuesday in a statement. “We need ethical leadership that will focus on job creation, not scoring political points. We need a proven, job-creating businessman to take the reins.”
Deal’s campaign, which has questioned whether the mayor was living in a “fantasyland,” said it welcomed the chance to debate the governor’s economic policy. Deal told a Sandy Springs luncheon on Tuesday that 177,000 new jobs were created in Georgia since he took office, including 69,000 positions that came to Georgia with the help of state officials.
“I look forward to running on my record,” he said. “I believe it’s a record that shows I have provided the kind of leadership that most Georgians want.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to coalesce on a challenger to Deal. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed sparked debate within the party when he said he believed Deal would be re-elected and that the party should focus on winning an open U.S. Senate seat next year, but other leaders believe Deal is in a more precarious political position than it would seem.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the next governor will be a Democrat,” said state Sen. Jason Carter, an Atlanta Democrat often mentioned as a candidate. “Whether it’s in 2014 or 2018 I don’t know. But I think Deal is vulnerable, and it’s because he’s done a poor job in managing his coalition. He’ll definitely see a Democratic challenger.”
He added: “There needs to be a genuine debate about the fact that the state is adrift.”
Pennington, a fast-talking 60-year-old insurance executive with no lack of confidence, built a following last year crusading across the state against the 1 percent transportation sales tax that Deal and other GOP leaders supported. He’s stumped across Georgia for months with a warning that Democrats will return to power unless a “true conservative” takes office, and attacked the governor for renewing a fee on hospitals to avert a roughly $700 million hole in the state’s health budget.
Pennington emerged from a crowded primary in 2007 to win the mayor’s race on the promise of reining in spending, and he took office as Dalton’s carpet-based economy bottomed out during the housing industry’s collapse.
The region in mid-2012 had lost more jobs than any other metropolitan area in the nation, and the unemployment rate is still stuck above 10 percent. But there are encouraging signs a recovery is near as the home prices tick upward, and Deal recently trumpeted the news that a Dalton carpet giant planned two new factories to employ 2,400 people.
Pennington’s decision to run came as no surprise, but his odds remain steep. He faces a strong incumbent who enjoys support from powerful business leaders and has so far avoided an all-out revolt from the right flank over wedge issues such as his embrace of Common Core education standards. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ retirement helped by drawing other potential Deal rivals, such as U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, into the race for that open seat.
But Pennington, in his second term as Dalton’s mayor, sees an opening. His campaign says Deal’s fundraising totals are far from imposing, and notes the narrow margin of his 2010 runoff win. And some GOP activists suggest there’s enough discontent over Deal’s policies that they’re willing to hear Pennington out.
Kay Godwin of Georgia Conservatives in Action said one issue in particular sticks out: Deal’s ongoing defense of Common Core, the voluntary program that she sees as a federal takeover of education policy.
“We will not allow our children to be a part of this. We are going to fight this tooth and nail. This is the hearts, the minds and the souls of our children — the sovereignty of our state,” Godwin said. “And he’s fighting us tooth and nail on it.”
Expect Pennington, who declined an interview request, to also try to draw a contrast with Deal on the issue of tax reform. He highlighted his work reducing property taxes and licensing fees in Dalton, and his website proclaims his desire to make taxes “simpler, fairer and smaller.”
Deal, for his part, said he won’t shy from a debate on taxes. But he’s wary of proposals to slash taxes without offsetting it by cutting spending, particularly with much of the state budget tied to education and health care. He’s asked lawmakers to submit tax legislation to a “competitiveness” panel to vet it before it’s formally introduced.
“It’s dangerous in an election year to start talking about tax cuts,” he said, “unless you understand the full implications of the cuts.”
Current jobs: Dalton mayor and founder of Advanced Insurance Strategies
Family: Married to wife, Pamela, with two kids, David IV and Mary Jane
Education: Dalton High School, Dalton Junior College, University of Georgia (economics major)
Political experience: Emerged from a crowded primary to win the Dalton mayoral race in 2007, won a second term four years later.