Gov. Nathan Deal has a healthy advantage as he prepares to ask voters for a second term, but uneasiness over the economy could leave an opening for his Democratic rival. And the wild race for a U.S. Senate seat remains just as wide open as expected.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of 802 registered voters showed Deal with 47 percent support in a head-to-head matchup against 38 percent for state Sen. Jason Carter, his likely Democratic opponent.
Deal’s approval rating hovered around 54 percent, and a plurality of Democrats gave him high marks. But fewer than one-third of voters said their finances were better off than they were five years ago, and Carter polled strongly among younger voters and those who live in metro Atlanta.
The contest to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss remains muddled with no clear front-runner. The AJC poll found that at least 40 percent of voters either offered no answer or said they had never heard of the candidate when polled on four of the highest-profile Republicans and the leading Democrat in the contest.
The lone exception is Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state who was narrowly defeated by Deal in 2010 in the GOP gubernatorial runoff. She had slightly higher favorability ratings than the rest, at 39 percent, but also a 24 percent unfavorable rating that was among the highest of the Senate candidates.
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“It seems to me like pretty much anybody’s race with the favorability numbers being pretty similar,” said pollster Seth Brohinksy, who conducted the survey.
Deal’s election hopes likely hinge on Georgia’s economy, and the poll results offer divergent findings. Some 59 percent of voters said they were satisfied with the way things are going in Georgia today. Yet 58 percent characterized the state’s economy as either “not so good” or “poor.”
The results show Carter must work to woo fellow Democrats. About one-third of Carter’s supporters approve of the governor’s performance, and one-fifth of Democrats polled signaled they haven’t yet supported Carter.
Carter’s support among nonwhite voters, a traditional stronghold for his party, was only at 60 percent. Among voters in metro Atlanta, he logged 54 percent of their vote, and a plurality of voters who earn less than $50,000 backed him.
“I hadn’t paid attention to the race, but I’m voting the Democratic ticket,” said Bryan Dabruzzi, a 43-year-old from Atlanta who is finishing a degree in nuclear engineering. “I’m not rich, so I can’t vote Republican.”
Some 71 percent of Republicans signaled their support for Deal, which bodes poorly for his two GOP challengers, state School Superintendent John Barge and Dalton Mayor David Pennington. The governor also polled strongly with voters who are older than 65, and he tallied about 50 percent support from independent voters, who tend to lean conservative in Georgia.
One of them is Larry Robbins, a 66-year-old who lives in Putnam County. He said he’s not a huge fan of Deal, but he blanched at the prospect of electing Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
“I definitely don’t want Jason Carter if he’s kin to Jimmy Carter,” said Robbins, who retired five years ago from Georgia Power. “I’m not a fan of Jimmy Carter and his politics. I very well remember his time as governor. He went up there and made all those mistakes as president.”
Still, Jason Carter is in a better position than his Democratic predecessors. At the same time in 2006, an AJC poll showed Gov. Sonny Perdue had an approval rating of nearly 61 percent and a 25-point lead over Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, whom he eventually routed to win re-election.
The AJC poll was conducted by Abt SRBI of New York between Jan. 6 and Jan. 9. Among respondents, 44 percent identified themselves as a Democrat or Democratic-leaning, while 43 percent identified as Republican or Republican-leaning.
The Republican Senate candidates polled the best in their regions. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah showed the most strength in southeast Georgia, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta polled strongest in metro Atlanta and U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens did best in the Atlanta exurbs.
Republicans gave Kingston 36 percent approval to 8 percent disapproval, while independents rated him 28 percent favorable to 24 percent unfavorable. Gingrey scored 40 percent favorable to 10 percent unfavorable with Republicans, and independents were dead even at 31 percent favorable and unfavorable.
Handel had 46 percent favorable to 21 percent unfavorable among Republicans and 37 percent favorable to 29 percent unfavorable among independents. Broun was rated favorable by 33 percent and unfavorable by 16 percent of Republicans, while independents scored him 30 percent favorable to 28 percent unfavorable.
David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General, kept close with his rivals in recognition and favorability, despite making his first run for office. Among Republicans, 41 percent rated him favorable to 12 percent unfavorable, while independents broke 34 percent favorable to 19 percent unfavorable. Perdue benefits from a recognizable name: His first cousin is the former governor.
Democrat Michelle Nunn came in at 31 percent favorable, 18 percent unfavorable, with her strongest marks in metro Atlanta and the city’s exurbs. Nunn lives in Atlanta and is the CEO of the volunteer service nonprofit Points of Light. She’s the daughter of former U.S. Sen Sam Nunn.
Democratic voters gave net approval ratings for each of the Republican candidates except for Gingrey, and more Republicans approved of Nunn than disapproved of her. Yet 51 percent of voters said they hadn’t heard of Nunn or didn’t know enough about her to answer.
“The Democrats don’t even campaign around this area — all you see is Republican signs,” said Arthur Williams, who lives in rural Damascus and tends to vote for Democrats. “They’re part of Atlanta up there. … Maybe if she would come down and expose herself to the people she’d probably get more support.”
The Republican race, meanwhile, remains wide open in part because few voters are tuned in ahead of the May 20 primary.
“I’ve got a lot on my plate right now to be concerned about (the Senate race) at the moment,” said Diane Dickerson, a Hancock County resident who described herself as ultra-conservative. “But I will.”