Deal readies for November matchup against Carter

Gov. Nathan Deal handily defeated two GOP challengers Tuesday after a bitter primary contest. Now he must prepare for a November vote against Democrat Jason Carter, whose brand-name political legacy has already electrified the race.

Early returns show Deal with a wide lead over state Superintendent John Barge and former Dalton Mayor David Pennington. He needed to clear 50 percent to avoid a July 22 runoff.

Deal views Tuesday’s victory as validation of his first term in office. Since narrowly winning the GOP nomination in 2010 after a bitter primary, he’s pressed a pro-business agenda defined by limited tax cuts, a refusal to expand Medicaid and a cost-saving criminal justice overhaul.

“Georgia is on the move,” he said at his election rally. “We don’t intend to slow down. And we certainly don’t intend to move in the opposite direction.”

It’s a message he’ll bring to the bruising general election campaign against Carter. The Atlanta state senator has tapped supporters of his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, to raise more than $1.8 million since November while positioning himself as a moderate Democrat. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll suggests he and Deal are in a tight race.

Deal’s GOP rivals argued they would stand a better chance of defeating Carter in November. But their underdog campaigns lagged in the polls, trailed in fundraising and suffered from missteps from the outset.

Barge, who often clashed with Deal long before he announced his run, vowed to bring a renewed focus on schools as the “education governor,” but his murky messaging complicated his campaign. He advocated for more school funding, for one, but didn’t articulate how he would pay for it.

Carter’s entrance into the race stripped Barge of possible support from educators, and Deal’s decision to pour more than $300 million into K-12 funding robbed him of a salient selling point. As Barge’s campaign neared the end of its shoestring budget in May, he increasingly turned to social media tactics to attack the governor.

Barge said in an interview he was glad his campaign brought “education to the forefront” and that he had no regrets about his run. He added that he would not endorse Deal or any other candidate for governor.

Pennington, who stepped down as Dalton’s mayor in March, hoped to tap a natural constituency by appealing to tea party supporters and fiscal conservatives with a promise of deep spending cuts and a wide-ranging overhaul of the state’s tax code.

Yet his campaign struggled to connect with the party’s right flank, and many tea party leaders and GOP officials either endorsed Deal or stayed out entirely. Deal’s repeated refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which he viewed as too costly, and his support of a sweeping gun rights expansion helped shore up his conservative support.

The ex-mayor was also plagued by messaging issues; one memorable news conference he held outside Deal’s office was hijacked by the governor’s attorney, who badgered Pennington into pledging that he would release his tax returns.

Pennington said Tuesday he would go back to being a “very private person” with his defeat and attributed his loss to Deal’s overwhelming cash advantage. “It came down to dollars,” he said, adding: “But I wouldn’t go back and do anything differently.”

Deal’s GOP rivals both tried to tie him to ethics complaints that have long dogged his campaign by seizing on a Fulton County jury’s April award of $700,000 to the former head of Georgia’s ethics commission, Stacey Kalberman, who claimed in her lawsuit that she was forced out for too aggressively probing a complaint against his campaign.

Deal and his aides sought to sidestep the issue by arguing that his office had nothing to do with her departure. He also has presented an upbeat message to voters in ads and campaign events, promising more of the same if given another four years in office.

What exactly that would mean is unclear. He’s made few promises about what he’ll do with a second term aside from a vow to rework Georgia’s education funding formula and continue pressing for more changes to the criminal justice system.

He’s also kept a close eye on Carter, mindful that the well-financed Democrat poses a much greater threat to his campaign than the two Republicans he defeated Tuesday. Libertarian Andrew Hunt is also competing for the job in November.

Carter hopes to galvanize Democrats and attract independents with vows to boost education funding, while trying to appeal to conservatives by steering to the right on issues such as gun rights. He also hopes to take advantage of demographic trends that show an influx of minorities and other newcomers who typically vote Democratic.

“The campaign really starts today in earnest,” Carter said. “And it will be for those kids that are coming up in schools across the state — that’s why we’re running. I know we can do a better job than the destruction that’s taken place in our schools the last several years.”

Expect Deal to sharpen his message, too. At Tuesday’s rally, he said Democrats will seek to raise taxes, take away personal freedoms and “tell you that government knows best.” The rhetoric will only get livelier as Deal’s campaign unleashes its resources — he had roughly $4 million in his bank account at March’s end.

The governor said in an interview that the underlying theme of his re-election campaign would be a simple one.

“Georgia is still a conservative state,” he said. “And we’ve demonstrated we can govern effectively using conservative approaches.”

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