ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia has been a solidly Republican state for much of the past decade and there has been little good news for Democrats until now, with Jason Carter launching a bid for governor and joining Michelle Nunn on the ballot in 2014.
Democrats are expected to invest heavily in the state next year, which will come two short years before the 2016 presidential race and feature the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. The money will be used to build up the statewide organization _ registering voters, setting up a broad donor network and recruiting grassroots supporters _ in the hopes of eventually turning Georgia into a true battleground state.
"Senator Carter's entrance into the governor's race, along with Michelle Nunn's candidacy, has created an unbelievable amount of excitement and optimism among Georgia Democrats," said Tharon Johnson, an Atlanta-based Democratic strategist who led President Barack Obama's re-election effort in the South.
Jason Carter, a 38-year-old attorney and state lawmaker from Atlanta, said Thursday he plans to run for governor. The decision shakes up the 2014 race as Republican Gov. Nathan Deal seeks re-election. Deal already faces two primary opponents and will now have to deal with the prospect of a Carter campaign that is likely to be well-funded and focused on the governor long before the general election. Carter is not expected to face serious primary opposition.
When asked about Carter's announcement, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor was "focused on keeping Georgia the No. 1 place to do business and creating jobs and developing a skilled workforce."
There is no doubt Georgia Democrats still face a tough political climate, and it remains to be seen how much outside money will flow into the state and how well Nunn and Carter will appeal to independent voters. Republicans currently hold every statewide office and a large majority in the General Assembly. Both U.S. senators are Republican, as well as most of the congressional delegation. The state has voted for every Republican presidential nominee since 2000, with Obama receiving 45.5 percent of the vote last year.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, considered a likely Democratic candidate for statewide office in coming years, said Carter is one of the most talented politicians in the state because of his ability to connect with voters. Reed said work done now will only benefit Democrats in the long run.
"It's really an issue of resources," Reed said in an interview this week. "It's not about just messaging. You've got 600,000 unregistered African-American voters who nobody is communicating with in Georgia. You have more than 200,000 Latino voters that nobody is communicating with."
Republicans, meanwhile, feel confident Deal will win re-election, arguing he has made tough fiscal decisions during a challenging time and demonstrated an ability to create jobs and grow the economy. They point to comments made this summer by Reed, who said Deal had done a good job as governor. The two have partnered on major economic development deals and together advocated the Obama administration for money to deepen the Port of Savannah.
Eric Tanenblatt, an Atlanta-based GOP strategist who served as finance co-chair of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, said Republicans cannot ignore the fact that Georgia's electorate is changing. The state has seen an influx of out-of-state residents and an increasing minority population.
"We are still a very conservative state and a Republican state," Tanenblatt said. "That being said, the demographics in Georgia are changing and the Republican Party needs to recognize that. And some in the party do, and I am hoping that others will start to recognize that as well."
Nunn, who is running for U.S. Senate, has some primary opposition but is considered a favorite to advance. Republicans have a crowded field of candidates in the Senate race, and a runoff is likely.
Meanwhile, Carter is pledging to build a coalition of urban and rural voters with a focus on education and the economy. He plans to stay in the state Senate for next year's legislative session.
"What you see in rural Georgia now is a systematic underfunding of education, and folks are ready to see that change," Carter said in an interview. "Folks in Georgia are less partisan than people think. They are going to vote for the candidate who is going to make education a priority and make the economy work for them."
So far Carter's path closely mirrors that of his grandfather. Jimmy Carter served two terms in the Georgia Senate before running for governor. Although Jimmy Carter lost his first bid in 1966, he won four years later.
The former president said in a statement that he was proud and excited about his grandson's announcement.
"Georgia faces serious challenges ahead and would greatly benefit from a smart and fresh leader focused on improving our schools, creating opportunities for a more prosperous middle class and restoring a sense of trust and transparency back to state government," Jimmy Carter said.
A big question will be how the former president will factor into the campaign. When Jason Carter first ran for office, his grandfather didn't start campaigning until a few days before the election. At the time, Jason Carter told The Associated Press he wanted to prove he could do the hard work on his own and didn't want to be "trading on my family name."
Carter said Thursday that his grandfather remains an important figure in his life.
"He's given me advice and it's the same advice that grandfathers give their grandsons: Work as hard as you can, always tell the truth and you will be OK," Carter said. "One of the most important things he has said is that it's much more important to be a good person than a good politician."
Carter's decision to run for governor was first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Challenging Deal in the Republican primary are state schools Superintendent John Barge and Dalton Mayor David Pennington. On the Democratic side, former state Sen. Connie Stokes announced Thursday that she was exiting the race for governor and would instead campaign for lieutenant governor.
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