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While Gov. Nathan Deal is touting his record to win support for re-election, his challengers in the May 20 Republican primary are pointing to that same record as they try to convince voters that Deal is not who he says he is.
“The governor we have ... is not a conservative,” former Dalton mayor David Pennington said.
Pennington, who left office in Dalton earlier this year to seek the Republican nomination for governor, has staked his campaign on waging war against what he believes are Deal’s ethical lapses, including the governor’s ties to a company that owes millions in back taxes.
Meanwhile, state school Superintendent John Barge believes Deal has presided over a crony administration, benefiting financially while Georgians suffer.
“I’m concerned, overall, with the level of corruption in our state government,” Barge said.
Deal, having served in the Georgia legislature and U.S. House of Representatives for years prior to becoming governor, is no stranger to the campaign scene. Jen Talaber, spokeswoman for Deal’s campaign, said Deal understands his challengers will try to sift through his record to attack his performance and associations, but he doesn’t fear their efforts.
“Luckily, we have a strong record of successful, conservative governance,” Talaber said.
Both Pennington and Barge will have to overcome the same obstacles if they are to move onto the general election this fall.
“One of our biggest challenges, of course, is finances and getting our message out,” Barge said, adding that he’s pounding the pavement, knocking on doors and doing everything he can to turn out the vote in his favor. “We’re getting strong grass-roots support.”
In a nonpresidential election year, when voter turnout and enthusiasm typically slumps, the task of upsetting an incumbent governor is made even more difficult.
“Name recognition is the No. 1 challenge, without a doubt,” Pennington said.
Given these challenges, each candidate will have to broaden their appeal by tackling a host of issues that can rile up Republican primary voters.
Pennington said he would increase his advertising in the closing weeks of the campaign, while also meeting with gun owners, educators who oppose Common Core education standards and other reliable conservative groups.
Pennington trumpets his time as mayor of Dalton, but he also insists he’s focused on reducing the power of the executive branch. In addition, Pennington said, he’s committed to comprehensive tax reform.
Barge said he will continue to run as the populist candidate.
“I am the average Georgian,” he said. “I think that resonates with (voters).”
Barge also is running on his bread-and-butter issue: education. He said Deal’s leadership in pushing through increased funding for education this year was little more than “election year politics,” adding that he’s the true choice for voters who are concerned about the state of the school system.
“Certainly, there’s still room for significant improvement,” Barge said. “But we’re heading in the right direction ...”
Deal is hoping that a new round of promises for his second term will warrant the trust of voters.
Deal will “continue focusing on job creation, improving workforce development training and initiatives, and investing in K-12 education and innovation,” Talaber said.
The winner of the primary will square off in the general election against Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of President Jimmy Carter. And this adds one final element to the campaign, as each candidate tries to convince voters that they can beat the liberal heir apparent.
“This is our last chance as conservatives in Georgia to really ignite the movement,” Pennington said.