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Grandpa Jimmy Carter Casts A Shadow Over Ga. Governor's Race

Jason Carter, the eldest grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, is running to become Georgia's next governor.
Erik S. Lesser
Jason Carter, the eldest grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, is running to become Georgia's next governor.

On Sunday, Jimmy Carter makes an appearance at a church in South Georgia alongside his eldest grandson, Jason. Jason Carter is the politician these days, a state senator, and is now making a bid for the governor's office.

Democrats haven't won that office in 16 years. Now, the younger Carter, a Democrat, is neck-and-neck with the Republican incumbent, Nathan Deal.

This March, on the last day of Georgia's legislative session, state Sen. Carter was allowed to take the podium as president of the Senate — a ceremonial turn for outgoing Senators.

"While presiding does this make you President Carter?" asked Republican Sen. Charlie Bethel. The Senate erupted into a mix of howls and applause.

With that one remark, Carter's family legacy moved front and center.

And in his campaign for governor, the younger Carter must contend with his grandfather's legacy. The name Jimmy Carter stirs up complex feelings among Georgia voters.

"Certainly there are people in the electorate who the only measuring stick they need to make a decision about Jason is Jimmy Carter, and whether that's fair or not, that's reality," Bethel says.

Bethel says he also does not doubt that the inverse is true as well, and that there are people who will say, "If he's Jimmy Carter's grandson, then he's got my vote and he doesn't have to do anything."

At times, Jason Carter downplays his grandfather's role in his campaign.

"It's a grandfatherly relationship. It's not about politics," Carter says. "It's him teaching me how to clean a catfish."

Carter says though voters know he is Jimmy Carter's grandson, they're ultimately going to make a decision about him and his vision for the future of the state.

But Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, says it's not so simple. "The truth is if he wasn't Jimmy Carter's grandson and everything else about his bio was the same, there is no way he would have ended up the Democratic nominee," he says.

Abramowitz says the younger Carter still has to contend with voters who don't have good memories of his grandfather.

"If they're old enough to remember his presidency, there were some pretty tough times and negative associations there, with the hostage crisis, inflation [and] rising gas prices," he says.

Carter also has to dodge comments from his opponent, Deal, who suggests he is riding his grandfather's famous name.

Jason Carter does publicly wield the tie with his grandfather when it's useful with key voters, like African-Americans, who by and large like the elder Carter.

"Now, the climate is so us-versus-them ... and he was not that," says 50-year-old DeDe Lawson. "He tried to be fair. So that's why I'm wishing for his grandson. I'm hoping he can bring that to the table, that sense of fairness."

On the campaign trail, Jason Carter does have magnetism. Even his Republican colleagues admit he works hard and takes the job of legislating seriously.

And inside the state capitol, political writer Tom Crawford points to Jimmy Carter's portrait, alongside previous governors, and notes it's been 34 years since Jimmy Carter left politics.

"It's an effect that diminishes every year," Crawford says. "Certainly it would have something of an impact on the governor's race, but not as much as some people think."

Jason Carter's other big challenge is being a Democrat in a red state. But if he wins, he'll do more than buck expectations.

He'll also outdo his grandfather Jimmy, who failed to win the governorship on his first try.

Copyright 2014 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Jeanne Bonner