ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal drew a primary challenger on Tuesday for the 2014 governor’s race and used a speech before a group of business leaders to tout his economic achievements.
In the speech, Deal sought to blunt any criticism from his new opponent, Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who made it clear that he plans to make Georgia’s economy a central issue in the race. Pennington, who became mayor in 2008, said the state’s economic performance has not improved under Deal’s watch and instead trails the nation.
“Our leadership is failing us,” Pennington said in a statement. “We need ethical leadership that will focus on job creation, not scoring political points. We need a proven, job-creating businessman to take the reins.”
While the governor’s race is likely to be overshadowed by a fierce fight among Republicans seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Tuesday’s announcement means Deal will not get a free pass to the general election and instead will have to spend campaign cash to defend his record and make an early case for re-election.
By most accounts, Pennington faces an uphill battle against Deal, who recently reported raising $613,000 in campaign contributions since the first of the year and has roughly $1.1 million in cash for his re-election bid.
While Deal narrowly won a crowded Republican primary in 2010, he has worked to build up his support with various groups across the state. Earlier this year, he attended a tea party rally to protest the targeting of groups by the IRS and issued an executive order to reaffirm state control over a set of education standards viewed with skepticism by tea party activists.
In Tuesday’s speech before the Sandy Springs/Perimeter Chamber of Commerce, Deal gave an early preview of the campaign, highlighting his conservative stewardship of state finances and record on job creation. He said the state, working with local partners, has attracted 69,000 new jobs and more than $13.5 billion in new capital investments since he took office in January 2011.
“I’m proud of that, and I hope you are too,” Deal said to applause. “Our job growth has certainly exceeded the national average.”
In his announcement, Pennington conceded little ground on fiscal issues and said he has “disdain for those who would hide behind a party label to raise taxes or increase wasteful government spending.” He touted his work as mayor of Dalton to reduce property taxes and license fees.
Through a spokesman, Pennington declined an interview and pointed to a campaign website that describes him as a principled conservative with a degree in economics from the University of Georgia. On the website, Pennington calls for tax reform to “make taxes simpler, fairer and smaller.”
Dalton, dubbed the “Carpet Capital of the World” for its carpet manufacturing plants, has struggled in recent years since the housing bubble burst and demand for carpet dropped sharply. On his website, Pennington said he was committed to improving the quality of life for Georgians and noted that, during his time as mayor, nearly $1 million has been invested in historic preservation, and city recreation space has increased.
A recent report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted Georgia’s ranking in per capita income has slipped to 40th among states. When asked whether the jobs being created were high-paying enough, Deal said: “Any job is better than no job.”
Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor welcomes a debate on economic policies, saying the state’s revenues have increased annually since Deal took office and unemployment has dropped two percentage points. The state’s unemployment rate was 8.3 percent in May; in the metro Dalton area it was 10.7 percent.
“Gov. Deal has reduced the size of state government, maintained our Triple-A bond rating and cut taxes,” Robinson said. “We’re making real progress in Georgia, and Gov. Deal is going to offer a vision for the next four years.”
So far, no major Democrat has announced a bid for governor. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said earlier this year that the focus for Democrats should be on the U.S. Senate race and praised Deal for doing a “good job as governor.”
The two have worked together on a number of economic development projects, including Porsche’s new North American headquarters being built in Atlanta.