ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal handily won the Republican primary Tuesday in his re-election bid, earning more than 70 percent of the vote over two challengers, then quickly turned his focus to his general election foe.
Deal easily defeated former Dalton Mayor David Pennington and state School Superintendent John Barge.
Now his campaign will focus on a tougher Democratic opponent in Jason Carter in the Nov. 4 general election.
Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, will try to end the grip the GOP has held on the governor’s mansion since 2002.
“You can achieve prosperity by keeping government small, by keeping taxes low, by giving people more freedom of choice in terms of where their child gets an education,” Deal said, turning his attention to Carter. “This is what our campaign will continue to be about. And we will contrast it with that of the party that wants to raise your taxes, that wants to take away your freedom and wants to tell you what to do because they believe government knows best.”
Carter’s campaign said the state lawmaker had never voted for a tax increase and criticized Deal for underfunding the education system.
“A real vision for education, a real vision for an economy that works is something we just haven’t been getting in Georgia,” Carter said in an interview.
The tougher tone reflects the higher stakes of the general election. Deal benefits from being a Republican governor in a majority-Republican state. But unlike Deal’s primary competition, Carter can raise money, could benefit from a changing electorate and charges of ethical missteps.
Deal’s opponents in the Republican primary struggled to raise significant campaign cash against Deal, who reported having $3.9 million on hand as of March 31. By comparison, Carter raised $1.6 million in the same period and can tap into the fundraising and political networks of his grandfather.
Southerners voted reliably for Democrats as a legacy of the U.S. Civil War. That deep-seated habit started changing when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson supported civil rights legislation in the 1960s, opening the door for Republicans to pick off aggrieved white Democrats.
Republicans made inroads during the following decades among fiscal and social conservatives. That included Deal, who was first elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1992 before becoming a Republican.
The GOP breakthrough in Georgia came in 2002, when Republican Sonny Perdue beat incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes, then easily won re-election. Republicans now hold every statewide office and a solid legislative majority.
However, high-profile Democrats finish within a few percentage points of Republicans. Barack Obama won 47 percent of the Georgia vote in 2008. Even after Republicans hammered away on his administration, Obama won almost 46 percent of Georgia voters during his 2012 re-election.
The population of Georgia is changing, though probably not quickly enough to immediately alter voting patterns.When Perdue broke the Democratic hold on the governor’s office in 2002, black voters represented roughly 23 percent of the turnout. In the 2010 midterm election, black turnout had risen to 28 percent and reached 30 percent during Obama’s first campaign. Meanwhile, white turnout dropped from 76 percent in 2002 to 66 percent in 2010. It dipped as low as 61 percent in the 2012 election.