Jason who? Just maybe, a contender

By Tom Baxter

When Jason Carter’s grandfather announced he was running for president, the news was such a surprise that it generated that famous “Jimmy Who?” headline. It was a different story last week when the young state senator from DeKalb County announced that he’s running for governor.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign claimed it was only a coincidence, but by the end of the week it had placed its first campaign ad, an upbeat spot touting Georgia’s ranking by Site Selection magazine as the nation’s No. 1 state in which to do business. The speed with which former state senator and DeKalb County commissioner Connie Stokes announced that she was changing gears and running for lieutenant governor was a sign Carter’s decision was no surprise on the Democratic side, either.

Though it was obviously coordinated, Stokes’ decision to run with rather than against Carter is a significant part of this story. Carter would have been a heavy primary favorite, but his way is cleared now, while Deal will have to do battle in the Republican primary with Dalton Mayor David Pennington and State School Superintendent John Barge.

Even more important, an African-American woman in the second spot on the ticket  gives Democrats about the maximum amount of torque to turn out their base that they could have hoped for. State Rep. Alisha Thomas-Morgan appears on the verge of announcing her candidacy for the open state school superintendent post — so much so that it may already have happened by the time you read this.

Add to this the presence, in Carter and U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, of two of the most storied Democratic names in the state, and the party could have one of the strongest coalition tickets in years. And with Carter and Stokes leading the ticket against Deal and Casey Cagle, this is definitely shaping up as a DeKalb vs. Hall battle.

Does any of this really matter, however, in a state which has swung so solidly red?

We’re still a year out from the election, but the speed with which the Deal campaign rolled out an ad, and the subject of the ad, both argue that it could. Georgia has struggled with a sour economy for several years now, and the Deal ad is a first shot at making the case that the governor has done something to improve it. It will take more than a friendly nod from an industry publication to win that argument. Georgia still ranks close to the bottom among the states in the speed with which it has regained jobs since the 2008 recession, and if that continues into next fall, the incumbent has a problem.

Education isn’t the top priority in voters’ minds, but it factors into their attitudes about the state’s economic future. That’s the point Barge is going to press in the primary, and if Deal doesn’t convincingly win that debate, it could also hurt him in the general election.
If voters are still feeling uncertain about their prospects this time next year, they could be looking for fresh faces. Deal will be 72 next fall, and Carter will be 39. Age has its advantages when voters feel good about how things are going, but dissatisfaction favors the young.

When you look at the past two presidential elections and the last governor’s race, the advantage Republicans have in the state is consistent, but not very wide. Deal beat Roy Barnes with 53 percent of the vote in 2010, which is the same percentage Mitt Romney got in Georgia last year. Any falloff in the enthusiasm of the Republican base or uptick in the Democratic base could matter.

If the race gets really close, this could be the first election in the state’s history in which the votes of Hispanics and Asians really matter. It’s impressive that Carter speaks Zulu and Siswati, from his Peace Corps days in South Africa, but it may be more important to his campaign that his wife Kate taught school in the Dominican Republic and so presumably could make a campaign pitch in Spanish.

Considering how tough this state has become for Democrats, it might not be a bad idea to pick up a little Korean as well.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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