Democrats in Georgia got a shot in the arm last week when Senator Jason Carter of Atlanta announced he will be running for governor. Carter, rising star within Georgia's Democratic ranks and grandson of Georgia's only president, will presumably join Michelle Nunn when the primaries are done to headline a ticket that until recently was doubted to even exist.
When Georgia's Democrats met over Labor Day weekend to choose a new chairman, they not only lacked a candidate for governor, but weren't firmly committing that they would even have one. At the meeting, former state Sen. Connie Stokes offered herself for nomination and received a response of well, no one really said "no."
Stokes has since dropped down to the lieutenant governor's race to clear a path for Carter. Nunn must win a primary against several other opponents to win the nomination, though many Democrats continue to refuse to acknowledge that other candidates, such as Dr. Branko Radulovacki "Dr. Rad" or Steen "Newslady" Miles, are in the race.
Publicly, Dems appear to have settled on a Nunn-Carter ticket. If my Georgia history is correct, it will be the first time these two names appear on a statewide Georgia ballot at the same time. Jason's grandfather won the Governor's Mansion in 1970 when Michelle's dad was on the congressional ballot. Sam Nunn ran for Senate in 1972. Thus, Nunn's first re-election was the 1978 election, Carter's presidential mid-term between his 1976 election and his 1980 defeat.
The two names are indelibly part of Georgia politics, and Dems are hoping to cash in on those names to rebuild for a future. Meanwhile, the present is controlled by a Republican super-majority. As such, it's not unreasonable to ask what are they up to here. How are the names that defined Georgia politics in the 1970s going to define the party that bills itself as progressive?
This is an "off year" election, meaning that there is no presidential race on the ballot. As such, Democratic voting strength could be expected to be reduced from 2008 and 2012 levels. Many -- including me -- have thought that the Democrats would try to hold their powder until at least the 2016 U.S. Senate race as a trial run for statewide office, with the real goal of the 2018 elections with the presumed governor Nathan Deal term limited, and a likely scrum of statewide and congressional officers competing for the Governor's Mansion (think the 2010 GOP primary) opening up a lot of "opportunity" for Democrats.
So why Carter, and why this year?
Only Senator Carter knows the direct answer, leaving the rest of us to speculate. Clearly, Democrats see opportunity in the governor's race where previously they did not. Many partisans are buying into polling numbers that show some unexpected weakness from Governor Deal as he continues to face headlines from within the State Ethics Commission. Though issues from his 2010 campaign have been officially settled, leaks and internal battles from within that department continue to keep generating headlines from the problems.
The timing of opportunity in politics is also important. Were Carter to wait until 2018 to make a run for governor, he would likely be facing a popular Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Reed, who will finish his final term as mayor in 2017, was just re-elected by virtual acclimation and would be a formidable opponent in a primary. Running now, even with longer odds for a general election victory, gives Carter a straight shot at being on a statewide ballot. Further, tying his name to that of Nunn gives Georgia Democrats earned media star power. The attention from news stories helps get the dormant brand back in front of Georgia voters who have begun to wonder if the party even continues to exist here.
The names are also good for attracting money -- from both local and national sources. And it is those national Democratic donors that should make Republicans take notice. The overwhelming fundraising advantage enjoyed by the Republican supermajority will likely be blunted somewhat by Nunn and Carter. So long as the polls remain close, Republicans can expect Democrats to fund their ticket while community organizing the state for the future.
It's far too early to predict the outcome, but Democrats are looking at this race as a long-term investment. Nunn, originally recruited as a replacement for Congressman John Barrow, who declined to run, was at one point considered a party insurance policy should Republicans nominate Congressman Paul Broun. Now, the level of seriousness has increased, with a member of the "A-list" from the bench they have been carefully grooming deciding now is the time to step up to the plate.
Many Republicans had assumed the outcome of this election was a foregone conclusion. While the odds are still in their favor, this is no longer an election that they have the luxury of taking for granted. This is one that they will have to work for.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.