ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has always managed to stay one step ahead of ethics scrapes, and the 72-year-old Republican will have to do it again in what is likely his last election campaign in this GOP-leaning state.
Democratic challenger Jason Carter, a 39-year-old state senator and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, is using multiple ethics investigations going back to Deal's tenure as a congressman to cast the governor as a politician who serially abuses public office for his own benefit.
Reminiscent of his grandfather running for president in the wake of Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, the younger Carter promises "honest government" at nearly every campaign stop. "We're absolutely going to keep reminding voters of it," Carter said of Deal's record.
It's the third piece of a message that also casts the governor as short-changing public schools and mishandling Georgia's economy.
The Deal campaign says Carter wants to distract voters from his ties to national Democrats who remain unpopular in Georgia and from questions about how he would accomplish his plans for schools without raising taxes, among other issues.
"Jason's fundamental problem is that he can't tell the truth about where he stands on the issues, and that's led to him doing this absurd dance, resorting to diversions," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said. He added, "Our opponents for years and years have failed to prove Gov. Deal did anything wrong."
Yet Republicans acknowledge the race is competitive and that Carter has an opening to exploit the ethics issue in television advertising, though he hasn't done it yet.
"It will take more than a few negative headlines to make a difference" for Carter, said Georgia Republican strategist Todd Rehm. "But the drip, drip, drip effect is painful to watch sometimes. ... (Deal) can't seem to get away from it. It's like the gum stuck on your shoe that you can't quite shake."
The GOP also knows it can't afford to slip in Georgia, where Democrats also are trying to win an open U.S. Senate seat and prove their optimistic claims that demographic shifts put the state in play in the 2016 presidential election.
Deal won in 2010, even after his opponents in the primary and general election hammered him on the details of a House ethics investigation. The inquiry found that Deal, as a congressman, urged state officials to preserve a state program that did business with an auto salvage yard in which Deal held part ownership.
"Representative Deal's conduct may have violated House Rules and House Standards of Conduct," the committee's final report said. But Deal resigned from Congress before getting sanctioned, effectively removing himself from his colleagues' jurisdiction.
Deal's troubles as governor began with ethics complaints accusing him of routing campaign money to businesses in which he had a stake. The state ethics commission — ostensibly an independent body — would eventually dismiss the most serious allegations, instead opting for a minor fine for "technical defects" in Deal's campaign-finance and financial-disclosure filings.
The state ethics executive at the time of the complaints, Stacey Kalberman, said that's because Deal aides pressured her to quash the investigation and ultimately pushed her out. Kalberman later won a $700,000 judgment in a lawsuit against the state.
Her successor, Holly LaBerge, has since confirmed that Deal administration officials recruited her for the job while Kalberman still held it. Kalberman's and other whistleblower litigation included sworn testimony and other claims that LaBerge blocked a legitimate investigation and later boasted about it.
The ethics board fired LaBerge this week, days after a state judge fined her $10,000 for allegedly withholding documents from lawyers in the lawsuits.
Federal authorities have looked into the matter, though it's not known which aspects.
The salvage yard has come up again, as well. Copart, the private firm that bought Deal's salvage business and now pays rent to Deal for operating on the land, is locked in a $74 million tax dispute with the state of Georgia. The Carter campaign's take is that Deal is in business with a "tax cheat" whom his administration hasn't pursued aggressively.
Robinson said the commission's problems and Copart "have very little connection to Gov. Deal's office."
But the issues have been enough for Deal to propose an overhaul of the state ethics commission and suggest that Copart's tax case be settled by an administrative law judge, rather than his Department of Revenue.
Rehm, the Republican consultant, said, "Sometimes I think if he'd just admitted campaign-finance violations from 2010 and paid a big fine, then this would all be behind him."
Republicans and Democrats agree that it will take more than ethics accusations to unseat Deal, but Democratic Governors Association spokesman Danny Kanner said these kinds of troubles can help swing elections when incumbents are vulnerable on multiple fronts.
The idea, Kanner said, is to bolster other arguments, such as Carter's claims on education and the economy, by convincing voters that a governor is "taking their eye off the ball because of ethical failings."