State superintendent to challenge Nathan Deal in GOP primary

Superintendent John Barge said Friday he will challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in next year’s Republican primary with the message that the state should sharpen its focus on economic development and substantially increase funding for public education.

Barge’s decision, which comes weeks after he first publicly mused about a challenge, will shake up the statehouse and further politicize just about every aspect of education policy in Georgia. It also adds an intriguing rivalry to the race, as the two politicians have clashed over issues big and small.

“I believe that something has to change. Georgia needs a leader who will govern and not play politics,” Barge said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. “Whether we equal his war chest or not, I think what’s more important is what people will do when they go into the voting booth.”

The superintendent, who plans a formal announcement Tuesday at Smyrna’s City Hall, said he hopes to force a runoff in the three-way race against Deal that includes Dalton Mayor David Pennington. The challengers face steep odds against Deal, who has $1.1 million in the bank, an incumbent’s bully pulpit and the backing of most establishment Republicans.

Deal’s campaign said Barge will be scrapping with Pennington “for the 10 percent of the voters open to a challenger.”

“You can tell the strength of Gov. Deal’s position with the Republican primary electorate by the quality of the opponents who have announced against him,” said spokesman Brian Robinson.

Barge and Deal have been at the center of high-profile disagreements over whether voters should pass a constitutional amendment giving the state new powers to create charter schools and over the appointment of a staffer to oversee a four-year federal grant program for education.

The two were also reluctant allies in their support of Common Core national education guidelines that have drawn fire from conservatives. But Deal has recently signaled a retreat of sorts on the issue by calling for a review of the standards, which Barge criticized as short-sighted.

Barge said he doesn’t expect his stance on the charter school amendment or Common Core to factor significantly into his campaign. Instead, he said he will outline a plan to improve Georgia’s education system and attract better paying jobs. And he said that can’t be done with some school districts slashing school calendars by dozens of days from the old benchmark of 180.

“We’re hearing from companies saying we need higher-skilled folks,” he said. “And it’s difficult to attract a company to locate in one of our counties if the school system only has 144 days.”

The challenges force Deal to confront perhaps the fiercest intraparty competition a sitting governor has faced in decades. While no Democrats have yet announced, Barge said the challenges are a sign that some on the GOP’s conservative flank consider him vulnerable.

“I think it sends a message. In my opinion, being an incumbent is not a free pass to a second term. You need to earn a second term,” Barge said. “And if I thought Gov. Deal had done that, I wouldn’t be running.”

Even before Barge made his intentions public, there was likely no turning back. Several Republicans, including ex-DeKalb school board member Nancy Jester, are rumbling about a run for the superintendent’s post. And Democratic state Rep. Alicia Thomas Morgan is also weighing a bid for the office.

Barge’s path ahead is even more challenging. With his campaign coffers empty, Barge will have to rely on the financial support and voting power of teachers who are often key Democratic constituencies. But the superintendent said he takes solace in the example of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, the little-known Republican who rode a wave of educator anger to oust Roy Barnes in 2002.

“Teachers want to be included. They want their voices heard. They don’t want things shoved down their throats. They want to be a part of things,” he said, adding: “I don’t know that they’ve seen any support out of the (governor’s) office.”

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.