July 10, 2013

David vs. Goliath

Small-town mayor needs support, campaign cash to unseat Gov. Deal

Charles Oliver
charlesoliver@daltoncitizen.com

— The mayor of the Carpet Capital of the World has his eyes set on the governor’s mansion in Buckhead — and the most influential office under the Golden Dome in Atlanta.

In the hours since Dalton Mayor David Pennington unveiled plans to run against incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal in the Republican primary next year, plenty of intriguing questions have emerged. Chief among those queries are:

Who will support Pennington?

And with how much money?

At least one member of the local legislative delegation has already pledged his support to Deal, while another — who describes Pennington as a “good friend” — has not endorsed either.

State Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, has represented Northwest Georgia in the General Assembly for the past nine years. He plans to support Deal.

“He has done a tremendous job as governor,” Dickson said. “He has been a pleasure to work with. I see no reason why I would not support the governor.”

State Rep. Bruce Broadrick, R-Dalton, said he hasn’t endorsed Deal or Pennington, but he appreciates anyone who steps up as a candidate.

“David is a good friend, and his record of accomplishment as mayor speaks for itself. I think it will be an interesting campaign,” he said.

No major Democrats have yet lined up to face Deal. No other Republicans have announced plans to run in the primary.

Ken Ellinger, associate professor of political science at Dalton State College, said fundraising will be a key test of how viable Pennington’s candidacy is.

“He says a lot of people have encouraged him to run, and I’m sure they have,” Ellinger said. “The question is will they put their money where their mouth is?”

Ellinger said it’s difficult to say how much Pennington would have to raise to be a threat to Deal. Pennington filed paperwork on Monday to begin raising money for the run for governor. Asked how much he will need, Pennington said enough to be competitive but did not give a specific figure.

“The answer of most political scientists would be that if you are going to unseat an incumbent who has really done nothing to hurt his popularity you are going to have to outspend him pretty significantly,” Ellinger said.

Deal recently reported raising $613,000 in campaign contributions since the first of the year and currently has roughly $1.1 million in cash for his re-election bid.

“That surprised me a little bit,” Ellinger said. “It’s a bit more than I was expecting, and it might indicate that Deal was expecting a challenge.”

Pennington’s name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor since his campaign against the regional transportation SPLOSTs (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes) last year.  

Deal, who defeated a crowded field of Republican candidates in the 2010 governor’s race, is expected to campaign on his conservative stewardship of state finances and job growth.

“This is a numbers game,” Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson said. “The governor has 70 percent approval ratings from the Republican primary electorate that will decide the nominee. Gov. Deal has reduced the size of state government, maintained our Triple-A bond rating and cut taxes.”

But Pennington said Deal and the GOP-controlled General Assembly haven’t done enough to deal with the state’s economic problems, and he doesn’t sense any urgency to deal with those concerns. Pennington, who says he would like to end the state income tax, pointed to the failure of the General Assembly to pass comprehensive tax reform during the past three sessions.

Pennington has also called for ethics reform and greater transparency in government, as well as education reform that would return more power over school systems to local school boards.

Ellinger said voters might be able to gauge how seriously Deal takes Pennington’s challenge by how Deal handles those issues.

“We’ll see how nervous he is by how hard he pushes to take those issues away from Pennington, if he pushes some sort of tax reform. Abolishing the income tax seems too extreme, but he might push some reductions in rates to steal Pennington’s thunder,” Ellinger said. “If he does that, it could still be a victory for Pennington. Deal might steal his thunder but only by doing what he wanted him to do anyway.”

Some local observers say they expect the contest between Pennington and Deal will be exciting.

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb, a Republican, said the next year-and-a-half “will be very interesting.”

“The mayor is very sure of his opinions and not afraid to express them. He’s going to challenge the governor, and he’s very capable,” Babb said.

But Babb said the race may leave local voters “between a rock and a hard place.”

“David obviously is from Dalton and has served as mayor for the past five years,” Babb said. “Gov. Deal represented this area in Congress for many years (from 1993 to 2010). They both have a lot of friends and a lot of supporters in this area, so it may be a hard choice for some of them to make.”

Dalton businessman Phil Neff has long been active in Republican Party politics, and he’s supporting Pennington.

“David is probably as well versed on the issues and has as clear an idea of what he wants to accomplish as anybody I’ve ever met,” Neff said. “Quite frankly, I knew Nathan when he was our congressman as a Democrat, then he switched to Republican. I can’t tell the difference in his policies between when he was a Democrat and now that he’s a Republican.”

Dalton Tea Party Coordinator Naomi Swanson said both Pennington and Deal are popular among tea party activists across the state.

“They are both quality candidates, and I think there is going to be a lot of interest in this race,” she said.

Swanson said Georgia tea party groups typically do not endorse candidates.

Dalton’s Ralph White said he typically votes for Democratic Party candidates but he’ll be watching this race with interest.

“It will be exciting. I don’t recall anyone from this area running for governor before. I want to see what he has to say,” White said of Pennington.



(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)