There’s the mess in Washington, and the mess in the state Capitol.
Decide which one worries you most, and you’re halfway to solving the riddle of the November race for governor of Georgia.
The other half of the mystery is trickier, and will come down to your opinion of two political veterans: An 18-year Washington regular who trumped Sarah Palin’s chosen “mama grizzly,” and the first ousted governor to attempt a return since Georgia was a dusty web of dirt roads.
After 12 hours of limbo on Wednesday, it became clear that Republican voters — by the slimmest of margins — had settled on former congressman Nathan Deal to beat back the return of Democrat Roy Barnes.
The contest is sure to become one of the most hard-fought and expensive in the nation. Millions of dollars are about to be spent to help you identify the nightmare that keeps you up at night, whether it be classroom size or health insurance mandates.
Deal and his allies will hang the albatross of President Barack Obama’s low approval ratings around Barnes’ neck.
The refusal of Washington Democrats to bend on health care and spending “simply reminds Georgians about the way Barnes ruled imperially here,” Gov. Sonny Perdue said Wednesday.
Barnes, in turn, will make Deal part of the Perdue-led squad that — according to the Democrat — has bungled the last eight years of state policy.
“Do we continue down the same path with the same team that gave us ethics violations, teacher furloughs, [and] tax breaks to special interests?” Barnes asked in a TV ad on Tuesday. “Or do we work our way back?”
In between will come heated discussions of congressional investigations, apologies, so-called “birthers,” and what teachers should and shouldn’t remember.
Georgia has one of 37 races for governor this November, and is one of a dozen or so rated as toss-ups.
On June 30, Barnes reported having $1.1 million on hand to finish out the July 20 primary. Assume Deal is broke, or nearly so, after an extra three weeks of campaigning in the GOP runoff. But do not grieve for him.
With 2012 redistricting at stake, national Republicans and Democrats — both with tens of millions of dollars at hand — have identified Georgia as their playground. “A top-tier pickup opportunity,” says the Democratic Governors Association.
On Wednesday, the DGA immediately picked up where Karen Handel had left off, denouncing Deal as “a corrupt Washington insider.”
But keeping Georgia in “R” column may be more important to the Republican Governors Association, now led by former Perdue aides — who defeated Barnes in 2002. Also, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, RGA chairman, is making noises about a presidential run in 2012. The loss of a reliably red state would be a blemish.
“I do know that Georgia is a priority,” said Eric Tanenblatt, Perdue’s former chief of staff.
But character lies at the root of all politics, and a Barnes-Deal contest offers its own peculiarities:
– With Handel’s defeat, age, gender and government experience have been largely removed from the campaign equation. Barnes is 62. Deal will turn 68 this month. Both are lawyers with long careers in politics. “Outsider” is a term that applies to neither.
– Deal’s family history is peopled with teachers and school administrators. That, and two college degrees, are likely to make Deal a more confident suitor than Handel for the votes of teachers across the state — the constituency to whom Barnes has directed most of his apologies.
– Geography becomes a factor. Both Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican up for re-election, hail from Gainesville. House Speaker David Ralston is from Blue Ridge — which would complete a north Georgia triumvirate of power in the Capitol, should Deal and Cagle win in November.
Barnes is from suburban Marietta, but look for the Democrat to test Deal’s appeal south of I-20, perhaps with some subtle stoking of regional jealousy. “The majority of the vote is in metro Atlanta, but middle and south Georgia are going to be critical,” said Carpenter, the Barnes campaign manager.
– Another north Georgia factor: The 9th District represented by Deal is Georgia’s most conservative. Last year, Deal signed a letter requesting from Obama proof of his citizenship — on behalf, Deal said, of curious residents of his district. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, was asked about the “birther” letter Wednesday — but played it down. “I think if you look at what Nathan Deal is probably going to have to explain…, that may soon be the least of his concerns,” Gibbs said.
– Gibbs’ remark was a reference to a congressional ethics investigation short-circuited by Deal’s resignation this spring, looking into pressure the congressman brought to bear on state officials to protect his auto salvage business in north Georgia. Handel raised the issue in the runoff — but look for Democrats to emphasize that Cagle, the Republican lieutenant governor, helped arrange meetings between Deal and state officials.
They’ll argue that one is a scandal, but two is a conspiracy.
– Then there’s the historic feat Barnes is attempting. Gov. Eugene Talmadge was booted out of office by voters in 1942. He was re-elected in 1946 — but died before he could take office. That was the last time Georgia voters forgave a governor —and gave him his old job back.
Memories of Barnes’ style remain, Republicans hope. “It’s very difficult to say, ‘I wasn’t a good listener eight years ago, but I’m a good listener now.’ It’s a tough sell,” said Chip Lake, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland and a major Deal supporter.