April 5, 2014

Governor’s race starts to heat up after verdict

Former Dalton mayor David Pennington said Friday that if he’s going to beat Gov. Nathan Deal in the May 20 Republican primary, “We’re going to have to have a little help from Nathan.”

“That’s the only way you are going to beat an incumbent,” he said.

Pennington said he may have gotten some of that help on Friday when a Fulton County jury awarded Stacey Kalberman, the state’s former ethics commission executive secretary, $700,000. Kalberman had sued, claiming she was forced out of that job for trying to investigate Deal’s 2010 campaign.

Pennington, who has made a call for stronger ethics rules in state government one of his top issues, said that verdict will “undoubtedly” have an impact on the campaign.

Jason Carter, the only Democrat in the race, made it clear that Deal can expect the jury verdict to be an ongoing issue.

“This whistleblower trial opened a new window into the unethical culture of Gov. Deal’s administration,” Carter said in a statement. “Between this trial, the ongoing federal grand jury inquiry, and the new revelations that the governor used his official taxpayer-paid staff to advance his private business dealings, it is clear that this governor doesn’t think that the rules apply to him.”

But a spokesman for Deal said there was no connection between the governor’s office and Kalberman’s complaint.

“Today’s verdict centered around an internal dispute between former employees and former commissioners of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, which is a body that operates independently of elected officials,” said Brian Robinson, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for communications. “There’s a reason no member of the governor’s staff was called to testify: Because there’s no connection to this office.”

“After the most exhaustive review of such a case in Georgia history, commissioners last year ruled that the charges levied against Deal for Governor lacked merit,” Robinson added. “Those decisions are rendered by the commission members, not commission staff, after exhaustive study. As such, who the commission employed as staff had no relevance to the Deal for Governor case.”

Polls show Deal with a strong advantage over Pennington and his other opponent in the primary, state School Superintendent John Barge. An Insider Advantage/Opinion Savvy poll released recently showed Deal leading with 55 percent of those polled by phone and 51.6 percent of those polled over the Internet. Pennington had just 4 percent of those polled by phone and 6.4 percent of those polled over the Internet.

“The polls so far show Pennington and Barge stuck in single digits, maybe edging up towards  10 percent,” said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia. “But they both have a long ways to go to holding the incumbent below 50 percent and taking this to a runoff, much less defeating him.”

Pennington says the fact that Deal, an incumbent, is so close to 50 percent in surveys shows he is vulnerable.

“Name recognition is still the biggest deficit we have. A lot of people in Georgia still don’t know there’s an election coming up, much less know who the candidates are,” he said. “But wherever we go, we pick up a  lot of support. I think if I could meet with every one of the 700,000 people who will vote in this election I would win.”

He points to his wins in a number of straw polls among conservative and Republican groups across the state.

But Bullock warns the people taking part in those polls may not be representative of the average voter or even the average Republican primary voter.

“They are more politically engaged and more knowledgeable,” he said. “They may also come disproportionately from the right side of the political continuum.”

Pennington is set to film his first campaign TV commercials this week, and he says they should start running across the state in the last week of April or first week of May.

Bullock says that TV, especially in the Atlanta market, will be key to this race.

“The average voter isn’t aggressively trying to learn about the candidates. He may not even be aware that there’s an election coming up in about seven weeks. The key to getting their attention is repetition,” he said. “If you are watching Atlanta TV, on the evening news and Sunday morning talk shows, you are already seeing a lot of ads from two of the Senate candidates — David Perdue and Jack Kinsgton. Those ads are being run over and over again. That’s because they know voters aren’t paying attention, and they have to keep banging away at it to get their message across.”

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