ATLANTA (AP) — State schools Superintendent John Barge said Friday that he will run for governor next year, setting up what will likely be a heated Republican primary against Gov. Nathan Deal in which education and school funding will be major issues.
Barge, in a telephone interview, said he was proud of accomplishments made within the Department of Education since he took office in January 2011 despite challenges brought upon by Deal.
"There is more to be done, and I just don't feel like I can get it done from where I am," said Barge, a former Bartow County school administrator. "There needs to be some direction and some better vision from the other side."
Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor was in a strong position for re-election and characterized Barge as another weak challenger who is unlikely to garner much support from voters.
"You can tell the strength of Gov. Deal's position with the Republican primary electorate by the quality of the opponents who have announced against him," Robinson said in a statement.
Although Deal can still be considered a favorite, Barge's entrance into the race will force the governor to spend more of his campaign cash during the primary to defend his record. The relationship between Deal and Barge has been noticeably chilly since the two were on opposite sides of the debate over a state charter schools amendment. The measure, opposed by Barge as unnecessary, ultimately passed and was popular among Republican voters.
Meanwhile Democrats, who have been focused on gearing up for Michelle Nunn's bid for Georgia's soon-to-be open U.S. Senate seat, have yet to field a candidate for governor though they are working to recruit someone for the race.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington earlier announced he would be challenging Deal for the Republican nomination by making the case that the governor has not done enough to rebuild Georgia's economy since the recession. With Barge's entrance in the race, education will join the economy as the two biggest issues in the race, and the superintendent is clearly hoping that teachers — who have gone without pay raises and seen the number of classroom days dwindle — will be motivated to weigh in on the Republican primary.
"I don't think being an incumbent entitles you to a free pass to a second term. I think that has to be earned, and I don't see that," Barge said. "I think people in Georgia are really looking for a leader who will govern and not play politics."
Barge, 46, said he plans to stay on as superintendent during the campaign. He said he will focus on economic development and make the case that one cannot attract businesses to a state where two-thirds of schools have reduced classroom days below the 180-day limit set by law because of budget cuts.
"He has not even hinted at being willing to restore any of the cuts to public education that have taken place over the last 10 years," Barge said of Deal.
With Deal already having $1.1 million in the bank for his re-election bid, Barge will be starting at a distinct financial disadvantage. Barge reported no campaign contributions so far this year and only had about $2,000 in cash on hand a few months ago. In addition, since he will be staying in office, state law prohibits him from raising money during the legislative session that begins in January and could extend well into April. With the primary likely on May 20, that will pose a significant hurdle for Barge in the critical months just before the election.
"It's an uphill battle, I understand that, but I'm willing to give it all I got," Barge said.