Democrat Jason Carter is pivoting away from an education-first election message and toward an attack on Gov. Nathan Deal's economic policies in hopes of winning over independents in the runup to November.
"Georgia has no business at the bottom," Carter told a business crowd at a Dunwoody steakhouse Wednesday. "It's embarrassing to be last."
It's the beginning of what his campaign says will be rounds of more intensive attacks on Deal's economic policy. The economy has long factored into his election pitch - he often calls Deal's business philosophy a "grab bag" - but it's typically a side note to his argument to boost school funding.
Carter's strategic shift reflects his campaign's hope that he can undercut the governor's sunny economic argument, particularly in light of the August report that put Georgia's jobless rate as the second-highest in the nation. In the AJC poll released over the weekend, 92 percent of voters said the economy was either "very important" or "extremely important" in their position.
Deal, in an interview, said "there's no foundation in truth" to his opponent's attacks. The Republican has long argued that accolades naming Georgia the nation's top place to do business are a sign his economic policies, including the repeal of a state sales tax on energy used in manufacturing, are taking root. He often tells audiences on the campaign trail that roughly 300,000 private sector jobs have been created on his watch, and promises "we have only just begun."
The Democratic state senator issued no new policy pronouncements and offered few specifics. But he called on the state to increase its marketing outreach, analyze whether tax incentives are working, improve transportation infrastructure and make it easier for state pension funds, including the teachers pension, to invest in Georgia companies.
He took particular aim at a bipartisan push to invest state funds and private capital in a venture fund. A $10 million initial infusion to the fund didn't survive the budgeting process.
"It was going to send a message that Georgia was ready to be a place where they were going to start talking about venture and access to capital," he said, adding: "It's not on the radar screen now. The only thing that's happening right now in terms of economic development is a single-ingredient recipe that says we can do one-off negotiated tax breaks for people who are willing to come in with a big factory."
His comments included no mention of an earlier pledge to "professionalize" the state's economic development department, which prompted Deal to say it betrayed a lack of understanding about the office's work. But he revived an argument criticizing the Deal campaign's trumpeting of three media rankings that put Georgia as the best place to do business.
"They have been chasing these magazine rankings. And that is, to me, not a real answer," said Carter, who added: "Georgia right now is the place where people send their call centers. And we need is to be the place where people develop forward-looking technology."