ATLANTA - Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and a state lawmaker from Atlanta, said Thursday that he plans to run for governor of Georgia next year, energizing Democrats coming off a 2010 election in which the GOP claimed every statewide office.
Carter's decision resets the 2014 race as Republican Gov. Nathan Deal seeks re-election. Deal already faces two primary opponents and will now have to deal with a Carter campaign that is likely to grab national attention, be well-financed and criticize the governor's ethics and leadership.
Carter said concerns about education and the economy were at the center of his decision to run.
"I've traveled around the state, and people believe our education system is on the brink. People believe the economy is not working for the middle class, and people want to see an honest government that works for everyone," Carter said in an interview with The Associated Press. "As a state, we can't wait four years to start getting those right."
Later Thursday, Carter took the first steps toward running, filing paperwork with the state to form a campaign committee. He was joined by his wife and two young sons.
Georgia Democrats have been dealing with poor state party finances and a lack of political firepower since Republicans claimed every statewide office in 2010. There's been much internal optimism about the 2016 presidential race and the 2018 governor's race as being opportunities for Democrats, but Carter is clearly betting changing demographics in the state could be enough to carry him to the governor's mansion next year.
"Folks in Georgia are less partisan than people think," Carter said in the AP interview. "They are going to vote for the candidate who is going make education priority and make the economy work for them."
When asked about Carter's announcement, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor was "focused on keeping Georgia the No. 1 place to do business and creating jobs and developing a skilled workforce."
Carter, 38, was first elected to the Georgia Senate in May 2010 and has been at the forefront among Democrats on issues including education and redistricting. Carter said he plans to stay in the state Senate during his gubernatorial bid. His decision to run for governor was first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A big question will be how his grandfather will factor into the campaign. The former president said in a statement that he was proud and excited about his grandson's announcement.
"Georgia faces serious challenges ahead and would greatly benefit from a smart and fresh leader focused on improving our schools, creating opportunities for a more prosperous middle class and restoring a sense of trust and transparency back to state government," the elder Carter said.
When Jason Carter first ran for office, the former president didn't start campaigning until a few days before the election. At the time, Carter told The AP he wanted to prove that he could do the hard work on his own and didn't want to be "trading on my family name."
The younger Carter's path would seek to follow that of his grandfather. Jimmy Carter served two terms in the Georgia Senate before running for governor. Although Jimmy Carter lost his first bid in 1966, won four years later.
While Democrats once dominated state politics, the Republicans have been the party in power since 2002 when Sonny Perdue became the first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction. The state has voted for every Republican presidential nominee since 2000, although President Barack Obama garnered 47 percent of voters in 2008. Last year, Obama received 45.5 percent of the vote.
Also on the ballot in 2014 will be Democrat Michelle Nunn, who is running for U.S. Senate. Nunn also hails from a prominent political family; her father is former U.S. Sam Nunn, who represented Georgia for years. Democrats are clearly hoping a strong slate with both Nunn and Carter on the ballot and an emphasis on economic and education issues will connect with not only big-city voters but those who hail from rural parts of the state.
On education issues in particular, Carter has already challenged the governor on an effort to address a financial shortfall facing the state's popular HOPE scholarship program, which is funded by lottery revenues.
Challenging Deal in the Republican primary are state schools Superintendent John Barge and Dalton Mayor David Pennington. On the Democratic side, former state Sen. Connie Stokes on Thursday announced that she was exiting the race for governor and would instead campaign for lieutenant governor.