Republican governor Nathan Deal has spent much of his race for reelection talking up Georgia’s progress since he took office in 2011: targeted tax reform, economic development, a bigger education budget. His ads tout that the state has added 175,000 jobs and make the vague, hard-to-verify claim that Georgia is the “number-one place to do business.”
But the positive campaign hasn’t quite done the job of securing his reelection. That explains a different tone from the 72-year-old at a private fundraiser in LaGrange, an hour southwest of Atlanta. “I am the roadblock,” he declared.
The roadblock, that is, to Democrat Jason Carter, grandson of the former president and Georgia governor Jimmy. At 39 years old, with just four years in the state senate, Carter petit-fils is challenging Deal for governor and making a good run of it, too. Polls have consistently shown Deal with less than 50 percent support, and more than a few have him losing to Carter. As recently as September, one poll had Carter with a 3-point lead, winning independents and even a tenth of Republicans. The specter of a Carter dynasty—Jason is the first elected official in the family since Jimmy left the White House—is the kind of thing that keeps Georgia Republicans up at night.
More broadly, Deal stands in the way of Democrats regaining power in the state after being mostly shut out for more than a decade. It began with Deal’s predecessor, Sonny Perdue, who in 2002 was elected Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. By the end of Perdue’s second term, Republicans had complete control of the state for the first time in history. They now hold all eight statewide offices and both houses of the state legislature, as well as both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of U.S. House seats.
The 2014 election is the first real threat to Georgia’s GOP hegemony, and it’s not just Carter pounding at the gate. Democrats sensed opportunity with an open Senate seat and tapped Michelle Nunn, whose father is former Democratic senator Sam Nunn. Michelle, 47, has everything Georgia Democrats could want: a famous name, a business career, and ties to Republicans (including George H. W. Bush, who inspired the Points of Light Foundation she once ran). Most important, she has no political or voting record, making it challenging for Republicans to tie her to President Obama or Washington.
Nunn’s Republican opponent is also a political rookie with a familiar name: David Perdue, cousin of the former governor and a multimillionaire businessman. Born in Macon and a graduate of Georgia Tech, the 64-year-old made his fortune in management and corporate turnarounds, including stints as CEO of Reebok and Dollar General. When Saxby Chambliss announced his retirement, the man who had succeeded fantastically in business decided to try his hand in politics.
“I’ve never done this before,” Perdue loves to say of his first run for office. But the Republican has surrounded himself with plenty of political professionals, including pollster Nick Ayers, spokesman Derrick Dickey, consultant Paul Bennecke, and ad guru Fred Davis. All of them are veterans of his cousin Sonny’s gubernatorial campaigns. It was a strange and memorable TV ad (a Fred Davis speciality) that put the well-funded Perdue campaign on the map in a five-way primary with opponents who all had experience in elected office. The ad depicted his Republican rivals as screaming, crying babies, sitting amid hundreds more babies on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Perdue trumpeted his business experience dealing with “large, complex situations.” He came first in the primary, with just over 30 percent of the vote, and then won the runoff against longtime congressman Jack Kingston.
“People are very concerned about the state of Washington. They feel like it’s not working, and they want something done about it,” Perdue tells me. “There are a lot of people right now in Georgia who want a change in direction.”
Yet Perdue finds himself in worse shape than Deal. His poll numbers have stalled in the mid-40s, and Nunn has led or tied him in the last five polls. That may be due to sustained ad campaigns from Nunn and the Democrats focusing on Perdue’s work for Pillowtex, a troubled North Carolina-based textile company. Perdue joined Pillowtex as CEO in 2002, earning more than $2 million in salary and bonuses while trying to manage the company out of decline. He left after 10 months, and Pillowtex went under shortly thereafter, laying off nearly 5,000 employees.