ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal will serve a second term after overcoming a challenge from Democrat Jason Carter, a state senator from Atlanta and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
Democrats had seen an opportunity for growth in this Republican stronghold with increases in the state's black population, historically a reliably Democratic bloc. But Republicans were confident their base and swing voters would turn out for the sitting governor, who regularly touted the state's No. 1 rating by business publications and his administration's criminal justice work.
Unofficial returns tabulated by The Associated Press showed Deal with a commanding lead over Carter.
Libertarian Andrew Hunt, the former CEO of an Atlanta nanotechnology firm, also was on Tuesday's ballot.
Deal told reporters just before polls closed that he was confident in a full-stop victory while touring the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, where Georgia Republicans plan to watch vote totals come in.
"We all knew this was going to be a difficult election year," Deal said. "The demographics of our state have changed and are continuing to change. We have to adjust to that, but I think we had a message, hopefully we had a message people of this state accepted and understood."
Carter's supporters gathered to watch the returns at a hotel in downtown Atlanta, and his campaign chairman Michael Coles briefly addressed the crowd then told reporters that he's encouraged by how Carter is performing in some rural counties that Cole described as "not friendly territory" for Democrats.
"Jason can go to south Georgia and talk to farmers, and they know that he's telling them the truth because of his roots," Coles said, a reference to the Carter family's peanut farming legacy in Plains. Carter, 39, is former President Jimmy Carter's grandson.
The campaign is likely 72-year-old Deal's last after a career in Georgia's state Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and his 2010 election as governor. He easily overcame two challengers in a spring primary, and then often found himself on the defensive during the general election.
Deal supporter Chip Faucette said he was happy with the governor's first term and voted for the entire GOP ticket Tuesday in Marietta.
"Jason Carter's a nice boy, but he's running on the family name," Faucette said. "Deal has been decisive, his appointments have put good people in important jobs, and he hasn't ramrodded anything down the Legislature's throat."
Carter focused on Deal's record on education funding and a variety of ethical questions that arose during the incumbent's first term. He also faulted Deal for the state's unemployment rate reaching the highest in the nation in federal rankings. Carter had proposed a separate budget for education, promising the accountability would result in more funding for schools.
Nancy Reynolds said that focus on education convinced her to back Carter in the governor's race even though she supported other GOP candidates while voting Tuesday in reliably red Cobb County. Reynolds, a human resources professional from Marietta, said she thought Deal was "glib" about changes made to the HOPE Scholarship for college students as its funding from the State Lottery weakened.
"That was a result of mismanagement," Reynolds said. "I think it's time for some new blood."
Deal often questioned Carter's experience, making it a key line of attack along with telling voters Carter would increase spending with no detailed plans for how to find the additional money. Carter has represented a metro Atlanta district for two terms in the state Senate, and Deal argued that relatively short political career means Carter wasn't experienced enough to govern.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow and Kate Brumback contributed to this report.