Plains, July 27: Like many candidates, Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, is courting the Jewish vote. But when Carter, a state senator, declared his “powerful connection” to Israel, it was more than a campaign sound bite.
It was a not-so-subtle attempt to distance himself from a man he has loved and admired since boyhood: his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter.
The former President’s views on Israel are not the only ones to make his grandson squirm. Of the elder Carter’s call to ban the death penalty, his grandson said, “I love my grandfather, but we disagree.” And when grandfather Carter offered to attend a campaign rally in Albany not far from here, his grandson politely asked him to stay home.
“He wanted the people of southwest Georgia to see that he was a man of his own,” the former President said in an interview in his office, in a house where his mother Lillian once lived. Referring to his wife, he added: “He didn’t want the attention to be focused on me and Rosalynn.”
So it goes in what may be the nation’s most awkward legacy campaign.
Political families — from the Roosevelts to the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons — have long been a part of American politics. And they are not new in Georgia, where Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for Senate, is running for a seat her father Sam once held against a Republican, David Perdue, whose cousin was governor.
Carter’s bid to unseat governor Nathan Deal, the Republican incumbent, is testing the strength and durability of the Carter name in Georgia.
But it is also a test of something more: a deep bond between a 38-year-old grandson and an 89-year-old grandfather who, in the words of Roy E. Barnes, Georgia’s last Democratic governor, “would walk on fire to help get Jason elected”.
The elder Carter and his wife, regarded in the family as its sharpest political mind, have plunged into their grandson’s campaign. Carter has offered so much unsolicited advice that strategists now include him on their daily email updates, even if some of his counsel seems dated.
The elder Carters have been aggressive fund-raisers, headlining events in New York, Washington and Los Angeles.
Such leveraging of his former office has prompted Republican attacks. “Follow the money: President Carter a cash cow,” the Deal campaign declared in an email missive.
At that, Senator Carter grew testy. “My grandfather gets attacked all the time by all different kinds of people, and he’s over it,” he said. “The judgement that he is looking for is not from my political opponents or his political opponents or even anyone else. The judgement he is awaiting is one that he is very comfortable with.”
Analysts call the race a toss-up. Deal, 71, a former Congressman elected governor in 2010, is on the defensive over a string of ethics questions, and his approval ratings are below 50 per cent. Though Deal has more cash on hand — $2.6 million to Jason Carter’s $1.8 million — the junior Carter outraised the governor from April to June. Polls show them running essentially even.
“This is not going to be a blowout in either direction,” said Joel McElhannon, a Republican strategist in Georgia, calling Carter “a legitimate contender.”
A ninth-generation Georgian who grew up outside Chicago, Senator Carter actually comes from two political families; his grandfathers served together in the state Senate. He was 15 months old, the first Carter grandchild, when Jimmy Carter won the White House.
On his grandfather’s advice, Carter joined the Peace Corps in South Africa. The former President took him to Nelson Mandela’s home and beamed as the two spoke in Zulu. In 2010, while practicing law in Atlanta, Carter quietly helped broker an apology to Jews from his grandfather, who had infuriated many with his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
“I think his grandfather respects Jason’s judgement,” said Emmet J. Bondurant, a lawyer close to both men, who pushed for the apology. He said the younger Carter was the more natural politician, with “vastly more people and political skills than his grandfather”.