Democrats are more focused on trying to seize a vacant U.S. Senate seat next year than mustering a candidate for governor. And tea party groups aren’t planning yet to launch a conservative challenge to Gov. Nathan Deal.
Deal is quietly beginning to prepare for re-election in 2014 for a second term. The 70-year-old has kept a packed schedule and has more than $800,000 in campaign cash on hand. What he doesn’t have yet is an opponent.
Recent poll figures have raised questions about whether Deal could be vulnerable. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in December showed he held a 51 percent approval rating, but two recent surveys — one from a GOP-aligned firm and another from a Democratic-leaning pollster — show those numbers slipping below 40 percent.
The governor’s office isn’t sounding alarms. Deal’s strategists say internal polling is showing solid numbers, and that attention toward the governor’s accomplishments will only sharpen as his re-election nears. Expect voters to hear about job creation efforts, cost-cutting criminal justice changes and the HOPE scholarship overhaul in the run-up to 2014.
“The governor is strongly positioned going into his re-election year,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said. “That said, Governor Deal isn’t taking anything for granted. He’ll work hard to press his case to Georgia voters for why they should rehire him for four more years.”
Analysts say the mediocre polling numbers aren’t surprising as governors from both parties struggle with tight budget cycles. The plummeting approval ratings of governors in neighboring Florida and South Carolina, for example, could spur well-funded primary challenges in those two states.
The poll figures could be a reflection of a troubled economy and the lingering effect of the ethics allegations from the 2010 campaign, when Deal faced questions over a meeting with state officials about his auto salvage business, said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist. But he said Deal’s incumbency still makes him the “overwhelming favorite” against potential challengers such as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and U.S. Rep. John Barrow.
“Beating him in the primary is hopeless, and the tea party groups understand that. And the Democrats just aren’t ready. Kasim Reed knows better than to try,” Swint said. “Representative Barrow would be abandoning his hard-fought seat for a Don Quixote campaign. And there really isn’t anyone else that would have a good shot.”
Mike Berlon, the chairman of Georgia’s Democratic Party, said the party is focused now on finding a candidate it can unite behind for the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. But the focus will shift to the governor’s race as 2014 nears, he said.
“Just because there’s not a lot of talk about Governor Deal doesn’t mean there won’t be a good candidate,” he said. “Senator Chambliss’ announcement was such a surprise there wasn’t much discussion, and his decision not to run probably caused a lot of people that would have gone after Governor Deal’s seat in the primary to change their mind.”
Tea party leaders are planning to hold their fire for the Senate race and the chain reaction of state and congressional seats it could open as well.
“I don’t think he’ll face a tea party challenger in 2014,” said Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party. “All eyes are going to be on the Senate race and the congressional races. When you have limited resources, you have to pick the battles you fight.”
Some Democratic-leaning groups are spoiling for a fight. Bryan Long of Better Georgia, a group that has been critical of Deal, said the governor is more vulnerable than many Republicans would like to admit.
“My question to people who think Deal has a good shot at re-election is what is he going to run on?” Long said. “I think the best day of Governor Deal’s administration was the day that Saxby Chambliss retired. That sucked up a lot of oxygen. But the sand is shifting under Governor Deal.”
Todd Rehm, a GOP consultant, said ratings in the 40s for a governor in the midst of a down economy still put him in an unusually strong position. And Democrats are still years away from competing in the state they once dominated, he said.
“I’d put our third-tier statewide candidates against the best Democratic candidate, and we’d whip them every time,” he said.
The polls gave Deal relatively weak support among voters who consider themselves independent or moderate — voting blocs that typically provide Republicans crucial support in Georgia. Yet he retained high marks among the Republicans who vote overwhelmingly in the GOP primary, where the governor’s race could be decided.
One of those independent voters is Shyla Nambiar, a 50-year-old from Peachtree Corners, who said Deal’s “low-key profile with voters” may account for the polling woes.
“If he’s hoping to win,” Nambiar said, “he needs to project more of an image with the public, so we can get a handle on him and his accomplishments.”
Don’t expect Deal to get a free ride. Aside from a likely Democratic opponent, the governor could also face a primary challenge from a candidate seeking to outflank him on the right. One name that has surfaced is Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who told the AJC that legislators are in the midst of a “third consecutive do-nothing session” under Deal’s watch.
“Any elected official that is in a state which is doing as poorly economically as Georgia is would have to be considered vulnerable,” he said. “Georgia’s economy continues to trail the nations, and our state leadership seems unwilling to articulate a vision that will get Georgia growing again.”