On an overcast Thursday morning last week, state Sen. Jason Carter and his wife were running behind schedule to take their two boys to show-and-tell. The Candler Park family had to make a stop Downtown at the James "Sloppy" Floyd Veteran Memorial Building. They rode an elevator up to the 14th floor, where the Candler Park Democrat filed the necessary paperwork to run for governor.
A flock of reporters waited for the Carters downstairs. Before shuttling his kids off to school, the 38-year-old attorney and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter said it was time for voters to elect a governor who would strongly and effectively support education, the economy, and ethics.
"I'm running for governor because I believe in Georgia at its best," Carter said. "Georgia at its best has an education system that it's invested in. We don't cut a billion dollars from our classrooms. Georgia at its best has an economy that works for the middle class. Georgia at its best always has an honest government that works for everyone and not just good political donors or well-placed friends."
Georgia Democrats rejoiced. The announcement injected life into the state's 2014 gubernatorial race, which almost became an afterthought after Mayor Kasim Reed hinted that his party should possibly focus instead on the U.S. Senate race and only Connie Stokes, a former state senator and DeKalb County commissioner, placed her name on the ballot. Now it's likely to become a race with national implications.
Carter has the potential to be a successful governor. But he remains an underdog. Georgia Democrats are facing an uphill battle against an entrenched Republican incumbent in a red state. Carter needs to remain focused on both the 2014 election's outcome and future gubernatorial races.
That's not to say Carter has no chance to unseat Deal and move into the Governor's Mansion. His campaign announcement prompted the governor, who already faces two GOP primary opponents in Dalton Mayor David Pennington and Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge, to quickly launch his re-election campaign, debut his first political ads, send out an email fundraising newsletter calling upon conservatives to rally behind him.
Both Carter and Michelle Nunn, a political newcomer who remains the state's leading Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, have infused the once-lifeless Georgia Democrats. The state's party has assembled a reputable slate that harkens back decades to the days when Carter's grandfather was governor and Nunn's father served in Congress. Nunn could squeak past a Republican who's been beaten up during a crowded GOP primary for an open seat. But despite the fact that Carter's a young, charismatic lawmaker with a strong political pedigree, some think that the odds are stacked against him.
"The only way [Carter] wins is if Republicans manage to lose," says University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, a longtime observer of state politics. "It's almost a situation where, for him to win, there has to be in October 2014, late October, some kind of huge scandal involving Nathan Deal."
Deal has had some of those in the past. Several Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission staffers have publicly stated that Executive Director Holly LaBerge, who has ties to Deal, interfered with state investigators looking into his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. The governor denies any involvement. But the state auditor and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are reportedly investigating the claims.
Democrats will — and should — draw as much attention to the ongoing investigation and any findings that emerge. If they're lucky, they might have some mud to sling against Deal's re-election efforts. A touch of corruption likely won't be enough to convince voters to oust the incumbent. What would it take? A major sex scandal or even a criminal investigation. Bullock thinks the fallout would need to be so massive that the governor's Republican allies would back away to save their own political careers.
At the moment, there's little reason to think another scandal will come along (Nathan Deal sex scandal, really?). Despite the growing number of younger voters and changes in the state's demographics, Georgia's still too conservative for a Democrat to unseat a GOP incumbent.
"The fundamental [makeup] of the state still favors Republicans," Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie says. "I wouldn't fault the Democratic party for trying in 2014. It's a question of whether you have a critical mass here now. That's difficult to say. If he's banking on that, that's premature at this point."
A defeat at the hands of Deal wouldn't end Carter's future political ambitions. A close second-place finish would send Carter back to the Gold Dome as a party leader with an increased profile, higher name recognition, and the potential to be a Democratic frontrunner for the next gubernatorial campaign in 2018 — or 2022, where he'd benefit from Georgia's potential shift toward a purple, or perhaps a blue, state.
Carter's 2014 campaign could also help him build political credibility with voters outside the metro Atlanta region. That's an invaluable asset, win or lose, for future bids at elected office. A strong showing would also stake his claim as the Democrat most likely to take over the Governor's Mansion. If he does well, he'll have successfully jockeyed for the position before Mayor Kasim Reed or someone else could leapfrog Carter.
But what if Carter's message resonates with voters and Deal's ethics woes becomes insurmountable? He could benefit from a perfect storm that lands him an upset. Sure, it's unlikely that a Democrat will lead Georgia starting in 2015, but not impossible.