ATLANTA — For years, leading Democrats predicted that Georgia's increasingly diverse population will weaken a Republican hold on state government in the Deep South.
With the primary election over, Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, will put those predictions to the test.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal handily won the GOP primary on Tuesday, earning more than 70 percent of the vote in early returns. He easily defeated former Dalton Mayor David Pennington and State School Superintendent John Barge. Now Deal's campaign will focus on a tougher Democratic opponent in Carter in November's general election.
"You can achieve prosperity by keeping government small, by keeping taxes low, by giving people more freedom of choice in terms of where their child gets an education," Deal said, turning his attention to Carter within minutes of winning the primary. "This is what our campaign will continue to be about. And we will contrast it with that of the party that wants to raise your taxes, that wants to take away your freedom and wants to tell you what to do because they believe government knows best."
Carter's campaign said Carter had never voted for a tax increase and criticized Deal for underfunding the education system.
"A real vision for education, a real vision for an economy that works is something we just haven't been getting in Georgia," Carter said in an interview.
The tougher tone reflects the higher stakes of the general election. Deal benefits from being a Republican governor in a majority-Republican state. But unlike Deal's primary competition, Carter can raise money, could benefit from a changing electorate and could capitalize on allegations of ethical missteps by the sitting governor.
Deal's opponents in the Republican primary struggled to raise significant campaign cash against Deal, who reported having $3.9 million on hand as of March 31. By comparison, Carter raised $1.6 million in the same period and can tap into the fundraising and political networks of his grandfather.
Demographics favor Republicans, but that advantage may be narrowing.
Southerners voted reliably for Democrats as a legacy of the U.S. Civil War. That deep-seated habit started changing when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson supported civil rights legislation in the 1960s, opening the door for Republicans to pick off aggrieved white Democrats. Republicans made inroads during the following decades among fiscal and social conservatives. That included Deal, who was first elected to Congress as a Democrat before becoming a Republican.
The GOP breakthrough in Georgia came in 2002, when Republican Sonny Perdue beat incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes, then easily won re-election. Republicans now hold every statewide office and a solid legislative majority.
However, high-profile Democrats finish within a few percentage points of Republicans. Barack Obama won 47 percent of the Georgia vote in 2008. Even after Republicans hammered away on his administration, Obama won almost 46 percent of Georgia voters during his 2012 re-election.
The population of Georgia is changing, though probably not quickly enough to immediately alter voting patterns. When Perdue broke the Democratic hold on the governor's office in 2002, black voters represented roughly 23 percent of the turnout. In the 2010 midterm election, black turnout had risen to 28 percent and reached 30 percent during Obama's first campaign. Meanwhile, white turnout dropped from 76 percent in 2002 to 66 percent in 2010. It dipped as low as 61 percent in the 2012 election.
After passing laws cracking down on people who violate immigration laws, Georgia's Republicans may have difficulty winning over a small but growing population of Hispanic and Asian voters.
If Deal runs into short-run political trouble, it could be of his own making. He left Congress in 2010 during an investigation into whether he improperly used his congressional office to pressure Georgia authorities to keep an auto inspection program that put hundreds of thousands of dollars into his auto salvage company. He then divulged that he was deeply in debt after the collapse of a business owned by his daughter and son-in-law.
In April, a Fulton County jury awarded $700,000 to the former director of Georgia's ethics commission, Stacey Kalberman, in a lawsuit that contended her salary was cut and her deputy removed while she investigated complaints against Deal. The governor was cleared of major violations in that ethics probe, but he agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees to end an investigation into his 2010 campaign reports and financial disclosures.