Can Jimmy Carter's grandson lead Democrats back to power in Georgia?

Running for Georgia governor, Jason Carter instantly has name recognition and the support of his grandfather’s political patrons. But the state is far different from when President Jimmy Carter held the governorship in the early 1970s.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Georgia Sen. Jason Carter (D) of Decatur, talks to members of the media after filing his formal candidacy papers to run for governor at the State Ethics Commission Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013 in Atlanta. Carter is the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, state Sen. Jason Carter, says he will challenge entrenched Republicans for Georgia’s governorship next year, setting into motion a daring attempt by Democrats to forge a coalition of big-city liberals and African-Americans to return the historically Democratic state to its political roots.

Focusing primarily on Georgia’s struggling public schools, Senator Carter becomes the second Democratic political scion to attempt to shake the Republican power structure, which has become nearly set in stone since Sonny Perdue in 2003 became the state’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction. Michelle Nunn, daughter of the once-powerful US Sen. Sam Nunn, is running for the US Senate seat left open by the retiring Saxby Chambliss.

“What’s going on now makes Georgia unique in the United States: You’ve got two white legacy Democrats, and they are presumed to be the way back to power for Georgia Democrats, even though the Democratic Party [in Georgia] is a majority African-American party,” says Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist and author of “The Rise of Southern Republicans.”

“Mostly, Democrats are glad to have these names running, because, before this, they had a candidate problem,” he adds. “Now you’ve got a shot.”

In Georgia, like many Southern states, Republicans have majorities in both statehouse chambers and hold the governorship. More important, only Republicans have won statewide races in the past decade.

Yet despite such odds, there’s some fundamental rationale behind Democrats choosing this moment to make inroads in the South. For one, Virginia just elected a Democratic governor in Terry McAuliffe. And with the GOP defeat in the presidential election last year, talk began in earnest that Texas could be a political-flip state as demographics continue to evolve.

Now Georgia, too, has become an alluring political prize, a potential road-paver into the South for Democrats.

In his announcement that he would run for reelection, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) pointed to an obscure niche publication, Site Selection magazine, listing Georgia as the No. 1 state for businesses to relocate to, as evidence that his pro-business tack has worked. Governor Deal has accomplished many of his election goals, but has been dogged by simmering ethics allegations.

Moreover, Georgia remains saddled with higher-than-average unemployment, and the Sun Belt allure that glowed in the 1990s and early 2000s has noticeably dimmed. Although Atlanta’s real estate market has begun to rebound and the city remains national headquarters for hundreds of corporations, the city and state continue to suffer from education budget cuts and an uncertainty about how to rebuild the state’s dominance as a Southern power.

To be sure, Carter could become a bridge to his grandfather’s time as governor in the early 1970s, when Jimmy Carter promoted class and race equality, streamlined budgets and government, and improved the quality of education in the state. In the wake of the economic crash and a decade of Republican rule, those issues have begun to percolate in the electorate again.

“Carter faces the task of convincing voters who have elected Republicans to every statewide office that Democrats are worthy of a return to power,” writes Greg Bluestein, a veteran political writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He’ll be forced to confront questions about whether it’s too soon for a gubernatorial bid in a state that gave Mitt Romney a resounding victory just last year. And he must try to keep pace with Deal, who has hit the fundraising circuit to boost the $1.1 million he had in his campaign coffers in July.”

Carter, meanwhile, casts himself as a fiscal conservative keyed on jobs, education, and planning.

“We can’t wait as a state,” he told the AJC on Wednesday. “The bottom line is we can’t afford four more years of an economy that’s not working for the middle class and an education system that’s underfunded. It’s not about politics. It’s about making sure we can get the state that we need.”

But more important to his election prospects, perhaps, are the changing demographics that have begun to favor the Democratic Party.

“Democrats have been looking toward ... reverse migration of African-Americans into the South, more Latino voters, and liberal whites moving to Atlanta, Athens, and Savannah,” says Andra Gillespie, also an Emory political scientist as well as author of "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America.” “The question is whether the Democrats can mobilize or socialize them into the Democratic Party.”

Another likely factor in next year’s race will be an ongoing civil war within the Republican Party, which could flare up in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

“It’s been an uphill battle for any Democrat in statewide races in Georgia, but [Carter] could get a lot of help from a divided Republican Party that fails to unite around an eventual nominee,” says Mr. Black of Emory. “If that happens, then the Democrats might be able to win.”

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