PLAINS, Ga. — 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, Ga., 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. Referring to his wife, he added, “He didn’t want the attention to be focused on me and Rosalynn.”
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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 Gov. Nathan Deal, the Republican incumbent, is testing the strength and durability of the Carter name in Georgia, a red state that Democrats hope to turn blue.
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 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 (“Some of it is his famous micromanaging,” Jason Carter said) that strategists now include him on their daily email updates, even if some of his counsel seems dated.
“He got elected governor of Georgia by shaking 600,000 hands,” the younger Carter said. “That’s what he would tell you: ‘You’ve got to go to the grocery store and shake everybody’s hand.’ ”
Analysts call the race a tossup. 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 percent. Though Deal has more cash on hand — $2.6 million to Carter’s $1.8 million — Carter outraised the governor from April to June. Polls show them running essentially even.
Democrats lost the Georgia statehouse in 2002, when Barnes was defeated, and the once Solid South is a distant memory for their party. It has been four decades since the elder Carter was governor, and more than three since he left the White House — “involuntarily retired,” he likes to say, by Ronald Reagan in 1980.
His post-Watergate political rise as the earnest peanut farmer with the toothy grin put this tiny town of about 700 people on the map, and today, “Mr. Jimmy,” as locals know him, is a revered figure here.
His humanitarian work at the Carter Center in Atlanta is widely admired; a poll conducted in May by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 61 percent of the state’s registered voters view him favorably. But unlike the centrist Nunn, the former president arouses intense passions among conservatives, who detest his politics. Republicans lampoon him as a failed leader.
“There are a lot of people in Georgia, which, as you know, is a red state — has been in the past — who look with great disfavor on my administration as governor and president,” Jimmy Carter said. “And I recognize that, without any hesitation.”
So does his grandson, whose broad smile and boyish looks evoke memories of Jimmy Carter as a younger man. (Jason Carter is the son of Jack Carter, the eldest of Jimmy and Rosalynn’s four children.) Like his grandfather, he is seeking the governorship after just four years in the state Senate. As he pitches himself to voters as a defender of education and the middle class, his critics say he lacks experience and is too liberal.
“He wants it both ways,” said state Rep. Jan Jones, a staunch supporter of Deal. “He wants his granddaddy’s help with contributors, but when it comes to the issues, he distances himself. My guess is if his last name were Jones, you and I might not be having this conversation.”
Even here in Plains, where every detail of the former president’s life — from the peanut farm where he grew up alongside children of black tenant farmers to his brother Billy’s gas station — has been lovingly preserved, people say he might do the younger Carter as much harm as good.
“It’s great that he has his granddaddy to rely on, and certainly his granddaddy can give him lots of information,” said Jan Williams, who taught the Carters’ daughter, Amy, in fourth grade; runs the local inn, which the elder Carters helped restore; and oversees tourists at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the former president often teaches Sunday school. “But we all know that everybody is not a Jimmy Carter fan.”
A ninth-generation Georgian who grew up outside Chicago, Jason 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. Their “special relationship,” as Sarah Carter, Jason’s sister, described it, has long been obvious within the family.
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.”
Though the former president has stayed off the campaign trail so far, advisers say he is likely to make appearances, especially in black communities, in the fall. Since 2000, the white share of Georgia’s electorate has dropped to 59 percent from 72 percent, and nearly half of the newly eligible nonwhite voters are black, a reliable Democratic constituency. To win, Jason Carter must get them to the polls.
Political tradition in Georgia calls for former governors to attend their successors’ swearing-ins. The former president, who will turn 90 in October, is looking forward to it.
“And I’ll stay in the background during the ceremony,” he said, “where I’m supposed to be.”