The Real Deal on Georgia’s Gubernatorial Campaign Strategies

Georgia’s three gubernatorial candidates went head-to-head-to-head this past weekend in the Atlanta Press Club debates, with Gov. Nathan Deal (R),  state Sen. Jason Carter (D), and political newcomer Andrew Hunt (L) sounding off on a series of valence issues that left much to be desired by the audience.

From Deal’s endorsement of Georgia’s job creation rate, to Hunt’s promise to cut taxes, to Carter’s resounding call for better education, little was said that might turn moderate heads. Far from the bitter cracks of accusation that rushed forth from the first forum on education, this final debate lacked both luster and substance.

The utter lifelessness of Sunday’s debate brings to mind the question: What are the candidates really campaigning for?

Winning isn’t everything?

The answer seems obvious at first. Candidates campaign in order to win the seat, right? Yes! But that answer only barely scratches the surface of motivations and strategies in the intricate world of U.S. politics.

As one former Democratic campaign finance consultant speculated, “The Democratic Party of Georgia is attempting an organizational recovery. It has been mismanaged, under-financed, and, for all intents and purposes, electorally impotent since at least 2007.”

Several polls have ranked Deal and Carter as running neck-and-neck for more than a month, though gerrymandered district lines may yet again maintain Georgia’s strong red-state status despite close numbers for statewide elections in the past decade.

Deal has pushed to make headlines in job growth and education reform – likely in reaction to Carter’s call for education reform and the recent reports that Georgia’s jobless rate sits at 7.9 percent, putting Georgia at the very top of U.S. states for unemployment.

"Upon taking office,” Deal said in a recent press release, “I spearheaded legislation to increase the bidding threshold for state entities from $5,000 to $25,000, opening the door for more local businesses to do business with the state without cumbersome bidding requirements. This legislative fix expires June 2015, but I will take action to extend it.”

It is this nearing expiration date that makes the statement worth using so close to Election Day.

If the Democrats took over the governor’s office, Deal’s last sentence implies, they might not push to extend it.

In the final debate, Deal continued with his agenda to make Georgia’s growing job creation rate more important than its staggering jobless rate. He is correct in his assertion that economists pay more attention to the job creation rate over the unemployment rate. Yet his listless statements that “we are making substantial strides” indicate a faltering faith in in the electorate toward conservative fiscal policy. As Carter digs into Deal for the sinking economy and crumbling education sector, he is really chipping away at the age-old belief that Republicans are better known for strong fiscal decisions.

In other words, Deal speaks of job creation and better use of education funds because he’s been backed into a corner by Georgia Democrats during an economic downswing. As explained in one of our recent articles, a loss for Republicans in Georgia’s gubernatorial race is more than a win for the state’s Democrats. With the right redistricting, it has the potential to overturn a decades-long legacy of conservative politics across the South.

Furthermore, the sting of Deal’s ethics scandal is kept fresh by the campaign year, and a loss might signal the end of a long political career.

Carter at the bat

Jason Carter, on the other hand, is at the beginning of his political career. A loss for him in Georgia’s 2014 gubernatorial race is still a win in the long run. The amount of face time he has received with Georgians – and the nation as a whole through support from his grandfather, former President Carter – is substantial.

The former Democratic campaign finance consultant is positive that the party is making strides in Georgia, but couldn’t see a big win during midterm elections.

“The mood of the state and of the nation is really no different now than in 2012,” he mused, referring to the close presidential election between President Obama and Mitt Romney that gave the former Massachusetts governor only 53.4 percent of the public vote in Georgia, but all 16 of its electoral votes. “Midterms are all about turnout and Democratic Party candidates running up and down the ballot in Georgia basically have to rely on their own campaign’s ability to mobilize voters because the party is so ineffective at doing so.”

Still, we’ve seen a big push by Georgia Dems on the whole to get out the vote by registering new voters, particularly minorities. Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams heads the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan organization that has registered more than 85,000 voters.

However, the state has failed to process nearly 40,000 of those new registrations. With the general election only two weeks away, the hold-up hardly seems coincidental.

After only four years in the Georgia Senate, Jason Carter might just be vying for the governor’s office to build momentum for a long, healthy political career. But the Democratic Party of Georgia is pushing to rebuild, redistrict, and reconquer their state.

'Hunt for Hunt' on the Nov. 5 ballot

An interesting turn of events put Libertarian candidate Andrew Hunt on stage on Sunday to debate with the big boys. The former CEO of a nanotechnology company, Hunt holds his Ph.D. in engineering from Georgia Tech and boasts many patents that he hopes to “put to work for the state.”

During the debate, Hunt stayed true to his libertarian roots, stating that “we have too many law-makers and not enough law-erasers.” He promised greater choice in education and declared himself “the only candidate who will bring you tax cuts.”

But it was his closing statement that indicated his real reason for running in the governor’s race and especially for appearing in the debates, with his young daughter proudly watching from the live audience.

“You have a third choice,” Hunt revealed to Georgia. “Don’t stay home.”

All three candidates expressed the need for Georgians to get to the polls on or before elections – early Sunday voting has slowly begun to spread county by county across the state. Yet as voters continue to complain over party squabbling and inadequate mainstream candidates, it is Hunt’s plea that rings loudest.

Deal must keep Republicans – and himself – in power. Carter needs to boost his and his party’s reputation in Georgia. But Hunt is the odd man out looking not only to launch a party, but maybe to start a revolution of power away from the two-party system.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 4. The latest Real Clear Politics polling average has Deal up by 2.6 points.