With support across the GOP and the endorsement from Atlanta’s most powerful Democrat, Gov. Nathan Deal seemed ready to coast to a second term. Now his most pressing challenge could come from a surprising force within his own party.
State Schools Superintendent John Barge said Tuesday that he was weighing a challenge to Deal in next year's Republican primary that could upend statehouse politics and add a deeply personal element to the race. Barge said he has already accomplished what he wanted in the superintendent's office and that he'll decide by September.
The two rivals have clashed repeatedly since both took office in 2011 over issues as sweeping as last year’s charter school amendment and as wonkish as the inner workings of the Education Department.
"Part of the frustration is that for us to be able to accomplish what we need to be able to accomplish, we need more support," Barge said, adding: "I'm convinced things can be done differently."
Barge would face a difficult — some say impossible — contest against Deal, who has $1.1 million in the bank, the backing of powerful establishment Republicans and a tenuous truce with tea party elements to his right. Even Barge's supporters concede that leaving a vaunted statewide post to challenge a powerful incumbent is gutsy, to say the least.
For Deal, though, Barge’s rumblings and Dalton Mayor David Pennington’s entry into the race last month are ominous signs that some on the GOP’s conservative flank consider him vulnerable.
He may yet face the fiercest internal competition a sitting governor has confronted in decades. And the GOP, in firm control of the state government, may get another taste of the intraparty turmoil that beset Democrats for the generations they ruled Georgia.
Deal’s campaign response to a potential bid by Barge was perhaps a sign of things to come. The governor said he’s long been frustrated with the progress the state has made in education and painted Barge as a staunch defender of the status quo.
“If John Barge runs for governor, the good news for Georgians is we can now elect an education leader who’ll work on behalf of our children instead of playing politics,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said in a statement.
Several politicians are already laying bets that Barge will follow through. State Rep. Alicia Thomas Morgan, D-Austell, is considering a run for superintendent to help her party regain a foothold in state government, now controlled firmly by the GOP. And Nancy Jester, a former DeKalb County school board member, is weighing a run on the Republican side of the ballot.
The Republican dissension could also embolden Democrats, who just months ago were divided over challenging Deal after Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed urged the party to focus instead on an open Senate seat because the governor would likely win re-election. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said a growing cadre of viable candidates is eyeing the race.
“This shows the frustration of people over how Republicans treat public education,” he said. “And it shows there are deep fractures in the Republican Party that will cause troubles if not resolved.”
Barge’s next step has been an open question since his campaign reported zero contributions between January and July, but his testy relationship with Deal is no mystery. It hinges on Barge’s opposition to the ballot measure that gave the state new powers to create charter schools, a vote that ultimately passed with Deal’s outspoken support.
In public, the two men have attempted to play nice, but behind the scenes infighting has raged. Deal significantly shrunk Barge's central office budget and blasted the superintendent over poor standardized test scores. The governor last week suggested that Barge's refusal to side with his pick for a federal program threatened a nearly $10 million grant.
Both men support the Common Core national guidelines that have enraged conservatives groups, but other wedge issues loom. And Deal's campaign would likely remind voters of Barge's acceptance of a $7,000-per-year auto stipend that was discontinued in 2006. (Barge has said he was unaware the program ended and that he no longer accepts it.)
Barge downplayed the tiffs between the two, saying their meetings were cordial but that “sometimes I don’t understand some of his decisions.” And he said the higher test scores under his watch were proof he accomplished what he set out to do.
Yet he still has plenty on his plate, and political friction between the two men would only complicate the efforts. Barge’s department is trying salvage $9.9 million in federal grants from the Race for the Top program. He must find an able replacement for a test tied to Common Core standards that was deemed too costly. And kinks still need to be worked out for a new teacher evaluation program.
Still, some teacher groups seem ready to rally to his cause.
“I think, because of his actions as state superintendent and other factors, that Dr. Barge has a reservoir of good will among educators,” said Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “He seems to listen much more to educators than did his predecessors, and he appears genuine and sincere in his support for teachers and public schools.”
But it will take more than good will to win this type of contest. It will take dollars and votes, and educators have traditionally been skimpy with the two when it comes to GOP politics.
“I don’t think Deal is terribly vulnerable. Incumbents generally win primaries, and he’s going to be difficult to beat unless there’s a scandal,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. “Barge’s main constituency would be educators, but would they even ask for Republican primary ballots? And could they possibly fund his campaign?”
Barge seems undeterred. He talked of winning the superintendent’s race by spending roughly $70,000 three years ago, and he said he’d run a positive campaign that would highlight his long career as a teacher and school principal. He noted that his wife, Loraine, had also recovered from bouts with breast cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
At an educational summit in south Atlanta on Tuesday, he gave dozens of audience members a preview of his potential political pitch. He told the crowd of his father’s struggles with alcoholism and how he fled the turmoil at home by turning the classroom into a haven.
“Now,” Barge said, “we have the opportunities to help other children change their stories.”