AJC poll finds tight races for governor, Senate

Democrats have a serious chance to end Republicans’ statewide dominance and win U.S. Senate and governor’s races this year, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll suggests. But the general election contest has yet to truly begin, and GOP candidates will soon sharpen their attacks against their rivals.

The statewide survey found that Gov. Nathan Deal is 3 percentage points ahead of Democrat Jason Carter in his bid for a second term, within the poll’s statistical margin of error. At the same time, Deal’s approval ratings have lodged at 44 percent, below the 50 percent threshold incumbents aim to reach.

Michelle Nunn, the likely Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, has sizable leads against four of the five top GOP contenders for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. She polls only 1 percentage point ahead of David Perdue, a Fortune 500 executive who is among the front-runners for the GOP runoff in July.

The poll is good news for Democrats hoping the party can harness a rising number of minority voters and other newcomers in November rather than waiting for future election cycles, as national political observers envision Georgia as a swing state in the making. But there’s a long way to go.

Top Democrats are untested in statewide campaigns and have faced few attacks at this point. Deal’s campaign has so far ignored Carter in its feel-good ad campaign, and Republican Senate candidates are busy battering each other ahead of the May 20 primary. The independent voters who are likely to swing the race lean Republican, the poll shows.

The survey, conducted May 5-8 by Abt SRBI of New York, is the first time the AJC has polled since the Jan. 28 ice storm that gridlocked the region and a legislative session marked by unrest from teacher groups and a controversial expansion of gun rights. It polled 1,012 registered voters and has a margin of error of 4 percent.

The poll found that health care and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, provoke strong passions on both sides of the aisle. Most registered voters think the health care law requires major changes, and one-third believe it should be eliminated. Yet 53 percent also believe Obamacare has had no effect on them or their families.

Deal has opposed expanding the Medicaid health insurance program to more low-income Georgians under Obamacare because he declared it too expensive in the long run. The stance only appealed to a fraction of GOP voters, but it helped galvanize Democrats; almost two-thirds say they’re less likely to vote for him because of his refusal. It also resonated with independents; some 42 percent said they were less likely to back him in November.

Rick Clark, a 60-year-old Jackson man who is unemployed, said the stance could come back to haunt Republicans.

“That’s a shortsighted and backward way of approaching health care because the state’s not really capable of doing it to the degree that the federal government can,” he said, adding: “National health care is, I think, a God-given right, really — at least in this country.”

Deal faces test

Carter, a state senator from Atlanta, has enjoyed support from donors and national media attention partly because of his famous heritage. The grandson of former President Jimmy Carter has focused his campaign on education and the middle class, and the poll finds him within striking distance of the incumbent.

It has Deal leading Carter 46 percent to 43 percent, though Deal’s support edges upward to 48 percent when the question includes whether voters lean toward one candidate or the other. One of Carter’s supporters is Brent Craig, a 47-year-old advertising consultant from Atlanta who worries that the state is headed in the wrong direction.

“Nathan Deal is too focused on rewarding business interests and denying the most vulnerable people in the state health care,” Craig said. “Our quality of life has deteriorated.”

Deal has a base rooted in white voters, evangelicals and North Georgia residents who signal their overwhelming support for his second term. Pat Weatherly, a Sugar Hill cybersecurity consultant, said she believes Deal has lived up to his campaign promises — and then some.

“He’s straightforward and does what he says he’ll do. And that’s exactly why I like him,” Weatherly said. “I’m not a Democrat and never, ever will be. I just don’t believe in their policies, and I don’t appreciate what they do to this country.”

Carter’s network hinges on metro Atlanta residents, black voters and those making less than $50,000. The poll also indicates a brewing gender gap; Deal fares better with male voters, and Carter leads among females. Mary McCall, a 58-year-old retired advertising executive in Athens, said she thinks women are a better fit among Democrats.

“I’d say there’s always hope,” said McCall, who said she’s leaning toward Carter. “I’m still waiting for the first female president, and I think female politicians can do better among Democrats.”

For Carter, who is increasingly relying on his grandfather for fundraising support, the poll provides another dose of good news: More than 60 percent of Georgia voters have fond feelings about the former president and only one-third of voters give him an unfavorable rating. That could complicate efforts to tie Carter to his grandfather’s liberal record.

Nunn ahead in Senate race

Nunn leads all of the five main Republican U.S. Senate hopefuls in a general election ballot test, though the strongest Republican — Perdue — battles Nunn to a near-tie.

Perdue has led polls ahead of the May 20 Republican primary, which is almost certain to be followed by a runoff between the top two Republican vote-getters. Nunn has been embraced by Georgia and national Democrats ahead of her primary against three underfunded rivals.

The AJC did not poll the Republican or Democratic primary races because low turnout and primaries not confined to party registrants would have made the polling results, in its view, too unreliable.

In order to spring a November upset, Democrats will have to overcome President Barack Obama’s underwater approval in the state: The poll found him at 44 percent approval, with 51 percent disapproving of his performance in office.

Nunn has kept her distance from the president on some issues. For example, she wants to delay the requirement in his health care law that all individuals buy health insurance — but not get rid of it. Tellingly, in her first television ad she included a photo of herself with President George H.W. Bush, the founder of the nonprofit Nunn led, Points of Light.

She paints herself as a centrist bridge-builder, not unlike her father, longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.

“She has refreshing and new ideas on how we can, instead of fighting each other in a win-lose situation, bring people together and say to each other as Americans: Why don’t we start solving these problems rather than fighting over them?” said Gail Heaberg, a 65-year-old nurse practitioner in Warner Robins. “I think our state would benefit from getting away from extreme conservative policies and moving toward helping the middle class.”

The pitch does not work for everyone.

“I really don’t know about Michelle. I’m just not sure about her,” said Susie Hobson, a 74-year-old retiree from Ellijay. “I have more faith in a Republican. I like David Perdue because I like his business experience.

“When you look at his face, it looks like a caring face. It looks like someone who would trust the very best. And if we don’t have anybody that cares, we won’t need them.”

Nunn leads Perdue 46 percent to 45 percent when matched up in a hypothetical general election contest — among likely voters and including those who are “leaning” toward a candidate. She fares better against the other Republicans.

Against former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, Nunn leads 49 percent to 41 percent. Against U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, Nunn leads 50 percent to 40 percent.

U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens trails Nunn 51 percent to 38 percent, while Nunn leads U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta by 52 percent to 37 percent.

But those gaps close when only voters who said they were “very likely” to show up at the polls were counted. Perdue, for example, takes the lead 49 percent to 46 percent with those voters.

The results illustrate a core challenge for Democrats in a midterm election year: Their coalition of younger, multiethnic voters does not turn out as well without a presidential election. Party leaders across the country who see Georgia as the next purple state plan to invest big money in finding those voters, though.

The independent question

The poll found Democrats have a slight advantage in party identification: 32 percent of respondents identified as Democrats, compared with 27 percent Republicans and 28 percent independents. But those independents skewed Republican, and when asked about ideology, the most popular descriptor was conservative, at 40 percent, followed by 33 percent moderate and liberal at 26 percent.

Independent voters gave Deal a firm lead over Carter and Perdue the edge over Nunn, following a trend of leaning toward the right in the state. Billy Steele, a 65-year-old independent from Snellville who backs Deal and Perdue, sums up his stance.

“He can’t do any worse than the rest of them,” Steele said of his support for Perdue. “I don’t say this with any remorse or any harmful means, but I think if everybody would just vote everybody out of office and start over again it couldn’t be any worse.”

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Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.