The other candidates working the room at a fish fry this month in Candler County had their names on the ballot this fall.
So when Sandra Deal, Georgia’s first lady, climbed a couple of stairs to speak to about two dozen Republicans, she acknowledged immediately that she was not the biggest draw.
“Thank you all so much for inviting me to come,” she said. “I know you really invited Nathan, but he couldn’t get here because we have about four people planning what we do. So Nathan decided that he had to go to Gwinnett, where there were lots of people for him to speak to, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about all of you.”
In an effort to cover as much ground as possible in the frenetic final weeks of the campaign, top candidates in Georgia’s U.S. Senate and governor’s races are deploying their spouses on the road. While lacking in political chops, they can humanize the candidates and act as valuable surrogates.
They can also soften their spouses’ harder edges. Most polls show a gender gap that has Democrats leading their Republican counterparts among women by double-digits. Since women make up 56 percent of the electorate, they play an outsized role in any political calculus.
Sandra Deal is the most experienced, having served in the ceremonial first lady role for four years and nearly two decades before that as a congressional spouse. The former elementary school teacher has made education her policy focus, and she has visited more than 350 schools to read to children.
“People know her better than they know me,” Gov. Nathan Deal likes to say on the campaign trail. “I know they love Sandra. I just want them to like me.”
Kate Carter, the journalist-turned-teacher wife of Jason Carter, Deal’s Democratic challenger, has had a slower rollout into campaigning. Now she leads “Teachers for Carter” groups and praises her husband’s daddy skills in TV spots. She sees it as a way to blend her passion for education, her experience as a mother of two children and her “nerdy” policy side.
“I think Jason is going to win it,” she said. “The idea that we can turn this talk into action is thrilling.”
She also provides him behind-the-scenes counsel, though she doesn’t expect him to change his mind just because they disagree.
“There has been a time or two when I disagreed with something and I told him. And in those cases I appreciate his smarts and his courage to do what he thinks is right,” she said in an interview, adding: “It’s open communication and dialogue, and I am proud of him. I really am.”
The job can also involve a sharper edge. Sandra Deal is a fierce guardian of her husband’s image and often highlights his decades of experience.
“Jason is a little bit cuter and younger, and he has a cute wife,” she said. “And we can’t quite meet that because we’ve passed that stage, as we’re grandparents at this point. But we do have a lot of wisdom, we think, and the experiences of life we can offer to this position. Because I do understand a lot of the needs and concerns mothers have.”
Bonnie Perdue, the wife of Republican David Perdue, said she has been surprised at the vitriol aimed at her husband. Sometime around May — when the Republican Senate primary got hot — she stopped reading about the race.
“It’s driving me nuts because I’d be awake at night thinking ‘I’m going to write a letter to that person,’ or ‘I want to send in a comment when they post the comments on the AJC.’ ” she said. “And I knew I couldn’t do that. So I thought: ‘Well, this is crazy. I need to quit reading all that stuff.’”
Perdue, who met her husband in first grade in Warner Robins, spoke occasionally by herself during primary season, but for the general election her own schedule has picked up with multiple events a week. Typically, she’ll speak to Republican women’s groups, and she lately has led “Women for Perdue” rallies.
“I’ve gotten more comfortable as we’ve gone along,” said Perdue, a former special education teacher. “And the thing I’ve found is even if you bungle something, people are so gracious. They say: ‘Thank you so much for coming. We love everything you had to say.’ ”
Both Perdues have toured the state in a recreational vehicle in the final days. Bonnie Perdue often introduces her husband with little nuggets about their home life, such as the numerical nicknames for David, their son and grandson.
“Hi, I’m D-2,” David Perdue said to laughter in Fayetteville.
With two young kids at home, Michelle Nunn’s husband, Ron Martin, gets out on his own less often. But Martin, too, is hitting the road for the final stretch.
He spoke to a couple of dozen Democrats in Milledgeville on a recent evening. He spoke about how they met, through Martin volunteering and serving on the board of HandsOn Atlanta. And Martin did not shy away from calling out the opposition.
“I don’t have to demonize David Perdue — although I could,” Martin said. “He’s talked bad about my wife and told lies about my wife that everybody says are not true. This is a woman who before she threw her name into the hat you couldn’t find anyone in Georgia, I don’t think, that would say anything but positive things about her. As soon as she gets in, she’s the devil.”
In an interview, Martin said “stay-at-home dad” is “as good a descriptor as anything” of his role, with Elizabeth, 9, and Vinson, 11. The kids have gotten to travel the state some during the campaign, but they have been insulated as much as possible from the negative ads, Martin said. (Nunn, who was established professionally when she married, never took her husband’s name.)
Spouses often serve to soften and round out the image of the candidate. Educator Linda Webb said she thought Sandra Deal helped push Nathan Deal to focus on schools.
“She’s definitely a plus, and I think the tour helped her with teachers,” Webb said after the first lady spoke at the Twin City fish fry.
Webb added: “We are a small county, and I appreciated that she visited us.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.