ATLANTA — It has quickly become a crowded field of those looking to unseat Republican Gov. Nathan Deal next year, with Dalton Mayor David Pennington formally launching his campaign Monday aimed at wooing the state's conservative voters.
Deal, in his quest for a second term, now has two Republican primary challengers and the prospect of a general-election matchup with Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic state lawmaker who has announced plans to run.
While still considered a favorite, Deal will have to face state schools Superintendent John Barge, who is expected to pursue independent voters with a focus on restoring money to education, and Pennington, who will be making a hard sell to conservatives and tea party groups active in state politics.
"I have a five-way test for Republicans," Pennington said in an interview. "I believe in limited government, less spending, fewer taxes, fewer regulations and an open and transparent government. Gov. Deal is 0-5 in my test."
Pennington, 61, became mayor of Dalton in 2008. Dubbed the "Carpet Capital of the World" for its carpet manufacturing plants, Dalton has struggled since the housing bubble burst and demand for carpet plummeted. But Pennington, who became mayor in 2008, has drawn praise from some for efforts to reduce taxes and regulations in the city.
Pennington has pledged to reduce the state income tax if elected and eventually eliminate it, a move that will no doubt draw attention during the primary. Deal, 71, has said he supports the idea of eliminating it, but is concerned about budget realities since about 50 percent of state revenue comes from the state income tax and about 30 to 38 percent from the sales tax.
Tom Willis, executive director of the Deal campaign, said there's no questioning the governor's conservative credentials. Deal, a former Republican congressman, will be running on his economic record, touting efforts to create a business-friendly environment and pointing to economic development deals that have brought jobs to Georgia.
"Republicans know Gov. Deal has done an outstanding job as he carried our state through very tough times," Willis said in a statement. "Republican voters want to see our conservative values kept in place in the governor's office, and they know that only Nathan Deal can beat the Democrats in the general election."
It's still early in the campaign season and a few tea party activists said Monday they continue to weigh the candidates. The primary will likely be held on May 20, although lawmakers have yet to set the date. No other major candidates are expected to enter the race at this point.
Andrew Strickland, a tea party activist from Milledgeville, said he's leaning toward Pennington because of the candidate's support for eliminating the state income tax.
"In Georgia we have, I call it a conservative crisis, where you have a Republican supermajority that doesn't really stand up for anything notable," Strickland said. "You would think that if you had a Republican supermajority, we would have things like no income tax and that taxes would generally be at a reduced level. Government keeps expanding."
Anthony-Scott Hobbs, a tea party activist from Cobb County, said he did not like Deal's support of a statewide transportation referendum last year and feels there's no excuse for not eliminating the state income tax.
"Ultimately, we need to bring forth the best conservative candidate where we can maintain the governor's office," Hobbs said. "As we both know, Jason Carter has announced. There will be a lot of national focus, national money coming into that race. But, ultimately, as a conservative, as a Republican, I want to be able to maintain that seat."
Pennington said his campaign has raised "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in recent months. The next campaign finance reports are due at the end of the year. As of June 30, Deal had $1.1 million in cash for his re-election bid.
"Obviously when we first filed to raise campaign funds back in July, we didn't know exactly how this was going to be accepted, partly given a Republican primary with a Republican governor," Pennington said. "We found, somewhat to our surprise, that there is a lot of enthusiasm out there."
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