Jason Carter: The Inevitable Candidate

Jason Carter has smarts, charisma, and an incomparable pedigree. He also has just four years in elected office, and he’s running for governor in a state that has little tolerance for his political party. Can a man who’s been building the resume for this campaign since he was a teenager save the Democrats in Georgia?
Photograph by Bryan Meltz
Photograph by Bryan Meltz

In October 1992, when Jason Carter was a seventeen-year-old high school senior applying to Duke University, the school asked him to write an essay about a friend who had influenced him. He chose as his subject James Beverly “J.B.” Langford, an “old country lawyer” from Calhoun, Georgia. He described Langford as the kind of man who “can walk into a room and say, ‘Damn, y’all sure look uglier than I remember you lookin’,’ and everyone will be happy to see him.”

From Langford, Carter had learned “how to clean a catfish, how to plant a sapling, how to handle a splitting ax, and what to say to a woman.” Langford—a state senator in the 1970s, state representative in the 1980s, and member of Georgia’s transportation board in the 1990s—also had taught Jason something about balancing public service and private fulfillment. Carter wrote, “I have taken from him one of my goals in life: to get the things done that need to get done and still have time to have fun and be fun.”

J.B. Langford, Carter explained in the essay, was his “other” grandfather: “He is my grandfather because my mother is his daughter. He is ‘other’ because my father’s father is former president Jimmy Carter.”

Jason Carter’s grandfathers were both politicians, but they couldn’t have been more different in style and spirit. J.B. Langford was a dandy who wore bow ties, sometimes adorned with peacock feathers; his irreverence seeped onto the General Assembly floor, where he once deemed a colleague “so fat he looks like he’s gonna turn into a butterfly.” His other grandfather, the thirty-ninth president of the United States and former Georgia governor, was a Bible-quoting Sunday school teacher who implemented austerity measures under the Gold Dome—consolidating sixty-two state agencies into three—and in the White House, where he eliminated limo service for top staffers as soon as he arrived in Washington. Langford was the quintessential Democratic good ol’ boy—he’d even been head cheerleader at the University of Georgia—and spent decades forging alliances and drawing on his flair for debate to push through legislation. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was an unabashed liberal who occasionally lapsed into sanctimony. He turns ninety this month and speaks his mind with little concern for whose ideology he might contradict or whose political career he might confound.

Carter with his grandparents J.B. and Edna Langford, and aunt Lucie (far left) in Calhoun, 1977
Carter with his grandparents J.B. and Edna Langford, and aunt Lucie (far left) in Calhoun, 1977

Photograph courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, gor240.

Langford and Jimmy Carter did share deep Georgia roots. Jimmy farmed peanuts in Plains, and Langford raised cattle in Calhoun. Friends since the sixties—Langford worked on Jimmy’s unsuccessful 1966 gubernatorial bid—they became family in 1971, when Langford’s oldest daughter, Judy, married Jimmy’s oldest son, Jack. The young couple’s son, Jason, was born on August 7, 1975, the first grandchild on either side of the family. His paternal grandfather could be forgiven for being a bit distracted; less than two weeks later, Jimmy announced that his presidential campaign had qualified for federal matching funds.

With such a pedigree, it would be more surprising if Jason Carter had not gone into politics. Still, his decision to run for governor this year is audacious. Just thirty-nine, he’s been in the state Senate only four years. By contrast, his opponent, Governor Nathan Deal, has been in some kind of elected office continuously since Carter was in kindergarten. That Carter leapfrogged ahead of other Democrats (Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed comes to mind) to run for the state’s highest office also has disrupted the natural rhythm of Georgia politics.

When Carter declared his candidacy a year ago, challenging an incumbent in a deeply red state was deemed either delusional or deliberately calculated—a test run for 2018. Yet this year’s election has turned out to be competitive. The candidates have traded poll leads for months; in August, Insider Advantage gave Deal a 43 to 39 edge while a WSB-TV/Landmark survey awarded Carter a 44 to 40 lead. By Labor Day, the Cook Political Report recategorized the race from leaning Republican to toss-up.

Carter’s resume may be slender, but his profile—charismatic young man with a populist touch—recalls Carl Sanders, elected to Georgia’s top office in 1962 at age thirty-seven on a platform that emphasized education and government reform. Indeed, with public school test scores even more relevant now than they were then, Georgia’s unemployment rate among the worst in the country, and a long-festering ethics scandal dogging Deal, Carter has a challenger’s freedom to attack relentlessly.

Since he entered the race, media coverage has centered on a paradox: Carter owes a lot to his famous last name, but his infamously outspoken grandfather could be his biggest liability. That dynastic conflict makes for provocative headlines (Exhibits A through C: “Grandson Proudly Squirms in Carter’s Footsteps,” the New York Times; “Jimmy Carter’s Legacy Hovers over Grandson’s Run,” Politico; “Why Does Jimmy Carter Hate His Grandson?,” Peach Pundit).
But focusing on the elder Carter misses the real story. Nobody, starting with Jason Carter, disputes that his family legacy delivers certain advantages. That said, Jimmy Carter’s positions are not likely to matter much on Election Day. After all, only voters over forty-five have any firsthand memory—positive or not—of Jimmy Carter in office. For Jason Carter, the real challenge is not to persuade Georgians to put a second Carter in the governor’s mansion; it’s to get them to vote for a Democrat—period.

Carter with campaign staff in Atlanta in 2014
Carter with campaign staff in Atlanta in 2014

Photograph by Bryan Meltz


Calhoun is Langford country. Which is to say, this is a place where Jason Carter doesn’t need to introduce himself. On a radiant July evening, the reception room at Harris Arts Center in Calhoun buzzed as supporters arrived for a “homecoming” reception. Carter’s childhood nanny, Louise Morris, chatted with Vivian Smith, who taught Jason’s mother at Calhoun Junior High. Beth Haney Bennett set out trays of cookies next to the platters of dainty ham-stuffed biscuits and homey pimento cheese sandwiches; her son Chet was in the same playgroup as Carter. Lee Linn recalled that when Jimmy Carter ran for president, the Secret Service came to Calhoun and set up headquarters in a trailer; agents followed Judy and Jack Carter, code name “Derby,” everywhere. “If Jack and Judy came to your house for dinner, the agents sat in the backyard and watched while you ate.”

Everyone was so busy chatting that the candidate slipped in without warning—foiling plans to grandly announce the “next governor of Georgia.” Jason Carter worked the room, pausing to hug Morris and wave to his mother and aunt. He shook hands with old family friends, heartily slapped a few younger fellows on the back, posed for pictures, and eventually, when nudged by his staffers to get back on schedule, strode to the front of the room, climbed onto a red plastic picnic cooler, and stretched out his arms toward the crowd.

“My name is Jason Carter, and I’m running for governor,” he said. Applause and laughs greeted this echo of the famous opening line from Jimmy Carter’s acceptance speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. “It’s wonderful to be in Calhoun, and it’s wonderful to see . . . almost all of you,” he said.

Friends in Calhoun will assure you that Jason was born here, but that’s not exactly true. His parents lived here after Jack finished law school and went to work for J.B. Langford’s law firm, but Jason was born at Emory Hospital on Clifton Road—which, he is quick to point out today, lies in his state Senate district. After Jimmy Carter was elected, most of the president’s clan—daughter Amy, sons Chip and Jeff and their spouses—moved into the White House, but Jason and his parents remained in Calhoun.

Jason Carter with his grandfather Jimmy, as the then-president arrived in Calhoun for an Easter weekend visit in 1977.
Jason Carter with his grandfather Jimmy, as the then-president arrived in Calhoun for an Easter weekend visit in 1977.

Photograph by AP Photo

Jack Carter branched out from law, operating a grain elevator and trading in soybeans. When the business went under in the early 1980s, the family left Calhoun for Chicago, where Jack dealt bond futures at the Board of Trade. Jason was a talkative and outgoing child. As a fourth grader, he set a record selling frozen pizzas for a school fundraiser. “We had a freezer packed with them,” Judy told me. “Some kids don’t like to do that kind of thing, but he was fearless about getting on the phone and asking people if they wanted to buy pizza.”

Jack and Judy divorced in 1989, and the next year she married Robert Thompson, pastor of Lake Street Church, in the suburb of Evanston. The newly blended family included Carter; his younger sister, Sarah; and Thompson’s two daughters, Sarah and Leah. Except for the “white-knuckle experience” of having four new drivers under one roof, the stepsiblings got along well, said Thompson. Carter was on his high school debate team; Robbie Ashe, who competed in some of the same debate contests as Carter and now practices law at the same Atlanta firm, recalled him as “really smart and a bit of a smart-ass—or not that different than he is today.”

He grew up in a household where community service and activism were prized. His mother ran the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which provides healthcare and early education for poor children. His stepfather’s congregation operated one of the only homeless shelters on the north side of Chicago. Jason and his sister and stepsisters tagged along on many of their parents’ projects, taking part in racial reconciliation services at Thompson’s church, for instance.

Although he attended elementary through high school in Chicago, Christmas and Easter holidays were spent in Calhoun, Plains, or Atlanta. “We were always transplants,” Carter told me. “Georgia was always home.” While he was at Duke, Carter spent breaks here rather than returning to Chicago. (His father had remarried and moved to Bermuda, then to Nevada.) Jason would invite his friends from college, and they’d sleep on sofas at his aunt Lucie Canfield’s house in Atlanta.

At Duke, Carter pledged Kappa Sigma, perfected his pool and shuffleboard skills, binged on Tomb Raider, and developed an appreciation for Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and the Allman Brothers. In his junior year he met Katharine Lewis, a freshman from Gainesville, Florida, and teased her about her “north Florida look.” He had a point, she said; she was wearing jorts. They began dating.

When Jimmy Carter delivered the commencement address at Jason’s 1997 graduation from Duke, he mentioned his grandson by name. For many in the graduating class, it was the first time hearing of the family connection. But Jason Carter was far from a political agnostic during his college years: He majored in political science, interned at the Carter Center in Atlanta, and even took a semester off to volunteer on the failed campaign of Harvey Gantt, the Charlotte mayor who ran for the U.S. Senate against Jesse Helms in 1996. But at graduation, he wasn’t sure about a career in politics. “I was all over the place,” he told me.

He opted for the Peace Corps, where he would be able to experience firsthand struggles he’d researched in theory as a Carter Center intern. Posted 8,500 miles from Atlanta in Lochiel, a remote South African village near the border of Swaziland, he lived in a rundown 1940s hotel, the only structure that met the Peace Corps residential requirement: concrete flooring and a door that locked.

Carter was assigned to help implement a post-apartheid curriculum, working in three overcrowded schools where “the windows were missing panes” and up to ninety students were crammed into some classrooms, sharing not only desks but often chairs. One lesson asked students to discuss what they wanted to do when they grew up, and in every classroom Carter heard the same list of occupations: forest worker, nurse, maid, truck driver, teacher, principal, soldier—all jobs that blacks had been limited to. For Carter, the exercise underscored how “the legacy of apartheid went far beyond the physical poverty of the community.”

For months, many black teachers wouldn’t speak to him because it had been ingrained in them not to directly address whites. He traveled by koombi, the shuttle vans that whites refused to ride. He attended more than thirty funerals, some for victims of accidents on the treacherous mountain roads, far more due to AIDS. He learned to like pap, a maize-meal porridge with “the taste and stiff consistency of old grits,” and to speak Zulu and Siswati. He lost twenty pounds. He became a soccer fan. He was given a Zulu nickname, Musa.

Jimmy Carter encouraged his grandson to keep a journal, which became the 2002 memoir Power Lines, a self-deprecatingly frank, sometimes funny account of witnessing post-apartheid social change in South Africa and of his own self discovery. The relative isolation was a change for the gregarious young man who’d always been surrounded by friends and family. “As much as the experience of another culture, I think the time for introspection shaped him,” his mother told me. “In Lochiel, I was always on,” he wrote. “Everyone was watching me, which meant I had to watch my every move and think before I spoke.”

Equally telling is the candor with which he described navigating the racial caste systems of South Africa. “Until I had to live as a minority in a community where I was forced to be conscious of my race every day, I had not scratched the surface of what racism meant,” Carter wrote. “In America, like many people, I knew how to talk about racism. But I never really felt like I was living with it until I came to South Africa.”

On election years, the Christian Methodist Episcopal annual conference becomes an essential stop for Democrats running for statewide office. This year’s meeting was held in the gymnasium at Paine College in Augusta, which was founded in 1882 to train black teachers and preachers to serve newly freed slaves. The CME, originally called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, is the first black denomination founded in the South and today has dozens of small congregations throughout Georgia.

Reverend Freddie Howard talked about the visiting politicians as he looked down from the bleachers to watch seats on the floor fill up. “They need rural votes, but most don’t travel to rural churches or rural places at all,” said Howard, who leads a thirty-five-member congregation in Rochelle, Georgia. Beside him, fellow pastor Donald Green nodded his head. “We only hear from them every four years.”

Herman “Skip” Mason, a former Morehouse College archivist who now serves as pastor of Trinity CME Church in Augusta, provided the introduction. “Jason Carter is the grandson of Jimmy Carter. This candidate is a man of God, and he’s got my vote,” he said, bringing the crowd to its feet.

As commonplace as it is in Georgia to see white politicians canvassing for votes in black churches, it’s just as common to sense their discomfort: forced smiles, rehearsed bromides, a stiff bearing. But Carter, sitting on the dais with a minister on either side of him, couldn’t have appeared more at ease. He leaned back in his chair, the cuffs of his navy suit hiking up to reveal a pair of shiny black cowboy boots, and shared a laugh with the ministers. Matt Towery, a pollster and political analyst, said Carter’s natural appeal surpasses his grandfather’s. “Jimmy Carter was likable and friendly. But Jason Carter is even warmer—and a lot more natural.”

Carter at a back-to-school fair in College Park this July

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

At a high-tech business discussion in downtown Atlanta, Carter had peppered entrepreneurs with questions about venture capital, jotting down notes on a legal pad. At a back-to-school fair in a Walmart parking lot in College Park, he’d chatted breezily with young mothers about their children’s class schedules. In Calhoun, he’d asked for patience so he could make “just one more point,” then made yet another, until he caught himself: “I was raised in the Baptist church, and I know that when the spirit moves you, you keep on talking.”

Now, at the CME convention, he slipped into the steady cadence of a preacher, sprinkling his talk with snippets of Bible verses. His subject wasn’t his grandfather or politics, but the Peace Corps. In Africa, he’d rented a room from a woman named Selina Ndzukulu, whom everyone called “Gogo”—Zulu, Carter explained, for “grandmother.” Apartheid had forced Gogo to live in a remote and impoverished township, but that didn’t stop her from serving others. Gogo headed a Methodist church, served as postmaster, owned cattle, and ran a preschool. “The Bible says that treasures are things you do not see,” Carter said. “If you looked at the things she had, the community—you would see poverty, maybe. You would see hardship, maybe. But the things you cannot see, the things that are not of this world, are what drive her and have changed that community for generations.”

Gogo’s story, he said, leads to a question: “What would she have done if she’d gotten to go to Paine College? What if she had been Jimmy Carter’s grandson?”

“All of us have that power,” he said. “We are all put here to do work.”

Afterward, Howard and Green said they had not realized Carter had been in the Peace Corps or that he had traveled so far to do public service. It’s something that the CME values; the denomination sponsors missions in Haiti, Jamaica, and Africa.

Carter is a skillful campaigner—a “great candidate” is the phrase used by both Towery, a former Republican state representative, and DuBose Porter, chair of the Georgia Democrats. “In politics, we talk about having ‘the gift’ to connect with people,” said Roy Barnes, former governor of Georgia. “In my experience, no one has it better than Bill Clinton. But the first time I saw Jason Carter speak, I knew he had it, too— and almost at the same level.”

In addition to “feel your pain” empathy on the campaign trail, Carter shares another Clintonian trait: a wonkish obsession with policy and data. At the meeting with entrepreneurs, he dove into a discussion about a little-known Georgia law governing equity funding. Discussing his education policies, he pulls out stat after stat: cuts to arts education in Quitman County, property tax hikes in ninety-one districts, the statewide reduction in school days. In his office, he leaned forward in a folding chair, voice raspy from delivering stump speeches, to animatedly discuss minutiae of the HOPE Scholarship program. “He will go to committees that he is not assigned to, to learn about what’s going on. He doesn’t send a staffer to take notes for him like everyone else does,” said fellow state senator Donzella James. Emmet Bondurant, Carter’s law firm boss, told me that he assigns Carter to cases that demand a skill “for putting together legal theories” combined with “conducting lots and lots of research.”

Georgia’s political landscape is shifting inexorably—in a way that Democrats hope will work in their favor. Right now, 55 percent of state residents identify as non-Hispanic white, compared with 63 percent nationally; in just five short years, if current trends continue, the state will be majority-minority. Those demographics create a mathematical opportunity that does as much to make Carter’s candidacy competitive as his famous surname.

At the Democrats’ state convention this August, candidate after candidate giddily declared that 2014 will be the year to “turn Georgia blue.” That is a long shot, according to Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie. “I would view these trends with tempered enthusiasm; 2014 is really a test year,” she said.

Here’s a crib sheet to the electoral math: In 2010, Deal won 1.36 million votes and Roy Barnes took 1.1 million. That year, African Americans represented 28 percent of the Georgia electorate and Barnes took 23 percent of the white vote. Victory for Carter will require a higher turnout among African Americans (so that they represent at least 30 percent of voters) and winning over white independents (by claiming at least 25 percent of the white vote).

The X factor in this equation is Libertarian candidate Andrew Hunt. Georgia requires a winning candidate to capture the majority of the votes. Carter and Deal are running close; when we went to press in early September, neither had polled above 50 percent. Hunt could force a runoff by drawing just 5 percent of the vote.

Assessing the state’s political zeitgeist means examining economics as closely as demographics. Georgia was hit hard by the recession, and as of July, its 7.8 unemployment rate was the second worst in the nation. Metro Atlanta—home to more than half of the state’s 9.9 million residents—is relatively wealthy, but poverty rates in the suburbs have more than doubled over the past decade. A quarter of rural Georgians are poor, and the state has one of the nation’s highest childhood poverty rates: 27 percent.

When I drove to see Carter speak at Paine College, my GPS directed me to Augusta’s Fifteenth Avenue—and through a blighted stretch of vacant lots, boarded-up homes, and empty storefronts—instead of Fifteenth Street, which runs between Paine College and Georgia Regents University, where a $76.5 million medical building is under construction. On the way home, I detoured first outside the gates of Augusta National Golf Club and then through the town of Buckhead. In the center of this once-thriving hamlet, the only operating concerns are the post office, a soul food restaurant that opens a few afternoons a week, and a convenience store where the top-selling items are lottery tickets.

In his book, Carter described the disparity between South Africa’s wealthy cities and its impoverished townships, comparing some villagers to “people in poor, tiny communities in South Georgia.” When I asked Carter how his Peace Corps experience might influence him were he to govern a complex state like Georgia, he said, “There is a reason the book is called ‘two years on South Africa’s borders.’ Those borders divided people all over and are similar to the borders between people who live in this state. There are huge parts of the state that have been just left out. If you are out in rural Georgia and you are looking at the demographics—and I don’t mean race but the number of people in poverty in Hancock County, the number who are college educated in Stewart County—it gets to be even more apparent [why] you are talking about a state where the average household income is dropping.”

After two and a half years in South Africa, Carter moved back to Georgia and married Kate Lewis. The time away had been transformative, observed his parents. From being “adrift” after graduating from college, Carter was “on fire, and very clear that he wanted to go into some kind of public service,” said his mother. “He was shaped by the South African concept of ubuntu, that a person is a person through other people, or service,” said his stepfather. “That informs him today.”

In 2001, when the Democratic Party was still firmly in control, Carter and a group of friends started an organization called the Red Clay Democrats. Its mission: raise funds in a low-key way that appealed to younger activists, “over pitchers of beer instead of bottles of wine,” as Red Clay cofounder Nelson Tyrone explained. Red Clay branded itself as a new generation of Democrats, and Carter was not the only one to whom that descriptor applied literally; cofounders include R. Lawton Jordan, nephew of Hamilton Jordan (chief of staff in the Jimmy Carter White House) and Robbie Ashe, son of Kathy Ashe (who spent more than two decades in the Georgia House of Representatives). In October 2001, Red Clay hosted its first event, a party at a Buckhead bar that raised $25,000 for Georgia candidates. Guests included Governor Roy Barnes, Lieutenant Governor Mark Taylor, and Secretary of State Cathy Cox.

But the writing was on the wall. Barnes had led a costly fight to change the state flag, and the battle left him vulnerable. It wasn’t just the governor’s office at risk; statewide, voters showed Democrats the door. In the 2002 general election, Democrat Max Cleland lost his U.S. Senate seat to Saxby Chambliss. Tom Murphy lost his job as Speaker of the House, a position he’d held for decades. And Barnes lost to Sonny Perdue, who became Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Carter enrolled at the University of Georgia law school, and he and Kate moved to Athens, where she worked as a reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald. He remained active in politics, helping on campaigns and continuing to raise funds through Red Clay. He forged new friendships, including with chef Hugh Acheson and Patterson Hood, lead singer of Drive-By Truckers. (Jason put a Truckers song on his grandfather Jimmy’s iPod; as we went to press, Acheson was slated to host a fundraiser brunch for Carter.)

But the news would only get worse for Democrats. In 2004, the year that Carter graduated from UGA Law, George W. Bush took 58 percent of the vote in Georgia; Republican Bobby Baker beat Democrat Mac Barber in the Public Service Commission race; and Denise Majette, the first African American nominated for the U.S. Senate in Georgia history, was trounced by Republican Johnny Isakson. Nathan Deal ran unopposed and secured his seventh term in Congress.
Carter and Kate moved to Atlanta so he could clerk for federal judge Frank Mays Hull. In 2005 Carter joined Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, a law firm known for antitrust, employment, and environmental cases. His tenure at the firm—supporting partners on big cases—was typical of any young associate. He helped win a $281 million breach-of-contract case for David McDavid, the car dealer who sued Turner Broadcasting after his failed attempt to buy the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers. Carter also assisted partner Emmet Bondurant on a pro bono challenge of Georgia’s voter ID law. Although the law was upheld in higher courts, the challenge did secure a change to the law that eliminated fees for the IDs and required them to be made available in every Georgia county. Work on the case earned Carter the Stuart Eizenstat Young Lawyer Award from the Anti-Defamation League.

He and Kate settled in Candler Park; she worked at the Atlanta Business Chronicle and then at Grady High School as adviser for the Southerner, the newspaper produced by students in the school’s communication magnet. Their sons, Henry and Thomas, were born in 2006 and 2008. Like many couples juggling two careers and young children, they negotiated schedules carefully. On nights Kate had to be at the high school to supervise newspaper production, Jason came home early.

A 1976 Jimmy Carter campaign poster and a 2014 Jason Carter Flyer. “He was low profile, downplayed his family,” said Ronnie Mabra, a state representative and Carter’s classmate at UGA.

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Step by step, Carter was constructing the platform for a possible career in Georgia politics: a law degree from UGA (alma mater of twenty-five of Georgia’s last forty-two governors), notable pro bono cases, board positions with nonprofits like Hands On Atlanta, and accrued goodwill thanks to raising funds for other Democrats. But he remained unsure about running himself. “People always used to ask me if I was going to run, and I’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ which was 100 percent true,” he told me.

Then, in 2009, Carter was presented with an opportunity. David Adelman, the state senator representing Carter’s district, accepted the ambassadorship to Singapore, leaving an open seat. Carter’s grandfather encouraged him to run. Cousins volunteered to chip in with babysitting. Friends from the Red Clay Democrats raised funds.

His grandfather might have endorsed the idea, but even before Carter prepared for the special election, he was learning how Jimmy Carter would provide both boon and baggage. Trailed by Secret Service agents, Jimmy and Rosalynn stumped for votes wearing matching campaign T-shirts. But behind the scenes, the younger Carter had been working for months to smooth relations between his grandfather and Jewish and pro-Israel groups, who were still rankled by the former president’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and its comparison between Israel and South Africa under white rule. “We talked about it and thought there needed to be a reconciliation,” said Bondurant, who has known the former president since the 1960s and is on the board of the Anti-Defamation League. He, along with Jason Carter and attorney Miles Alexander, were liaisons between the elder Carter and influential members of Atlanta’s Jewish community. In late 2009, after almost a year of discussions, Jimmy Carter published an open letter, apologizing for offense that the book might have caused.

A few months later, Jason Carter won the special election, making him the first in his family to win elected office since his grandfather’s 1976 presidential victory. It was one of the few bright spots for Georgia Democrats in a year that saw any remnants of the old Democratic machine in Georgia laid to ignominious rest. Roy Barnes’s attempt at a comeback ended with a shellacking by Nathan Deal; the former U.S. congressman took 53 percent of the vote to Barnes’s 43. Republicans won every statewide office and picked up yet another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. If there had been a worse time to be a Democrat in Georgia, no one remembered when.

Then things got even worse. Last year Mike Berlon, the party chair, resigned. The party itself was down to its last $30,000. To regain footing, Georgia Democrats turned to a stalwart: DuBose Porter, a sixty-year-old newspaper publisher from Dublin, Georgia, who’d served three decades in the General Assembly. In January, Porter hired Rebecca DeHart as executive director, a position that had gone unfilled for two years. As the party regroups (“we hit rock bottom,” DeHart told me in early August) and revamps its get-out-the-vote apparatus, it’s also relying heavily on Carter and Michelle Nunn—a candidate for the open U.S. Senate seat and the daughter of former U.S. senator Sam Nunn—to energize understandably weary Democrats.

On the surface, it might seem Nunn and Carter exploited their family ties to jump ahead of others. But on closer examination, that storyline does not hold up; simply put, there was not a long line of contenders for them to overtake. The Democrats’ slew of defeats made potential candidates leery and scared off donors. “There’s been a reticence for people to step up and run: It’s like bringing lambs to the slaughter,” said Eric Teusink, the current president of the Red Clay Democrats. “People didn’t want to step up, not get the financial support, and then get blown out 60–40 in a statewide election that could possibly end their careers.”

“I have no issue with his timing,” Stacey Abrams, Georgia House minority leader, said of Carter’s decision to run now. “What matters is less the quantity of time in elected office than the quality of leadership.”

Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, who shares rising-star billing in the party with Nunn, Abrams, and Carter, endorsed Nunn’s candidacy early, but as of early September had not issued a Carter endorsement. His spokesperson, Anne Torres, gave us this statement: “The mayor has said since January that his focus this year would be on helping Michelle Nunn win the open Senate seat, which he thinks is essential for Democrats to maintain their majority in the United States Senate. And I think you’ll see that anything Mayor Reed does for Michelle will accrue to the benefit of the statewide ticket. The path to victory for any statewide Democrat requires an intensive ground campaign focused on registering, communicating with, and turning out 600,000 to 900,000 new minority voters.”

While a Reed endorsement would be a plus, it’s not essential, said a number of insiders I spoke with. “If we waited for other politicians to say nice things about us, none of us would get elected,” said Abrams. Matt Towery pointed out that several Reed-endorsed candidates in the 2013 Atlanta City Council election were defeated. “Jason and Michelle will have to win the black vote on their own,” he said. “Kasim Reed can’t deliver it to them.”

If there’s one thing that Carter’s proven adept at, it’s raising cash. Between April and June, his campaign raised $2 million, topping the $1.3 million raised by Deal. About 30 percent of Carter’s funds were raised out of state, with events hosted by celebrities like actor William H. Macy. He’s benefited from the extensive network cultivated by Jimmy Carter (who hosted a $12,600-a-head weekend event in Plains this spring). While Deal, the incumbent, has deeper cash reserves, Carter was able to keep early spending light because, unlike Deal, he did not face a challenge in the primary. The Republican Governors Association already has spent a reported $1.5 million on ads and mailers supporting Deal. Carter is expected to garner some help from the Democratic Governors Association.

It takes most lawmakers a session or two to find the best lunch spots near the Gold Dome. But in early 2011, within weeks of being sworn in, Carter entered a political battle over the HOPE Scholarship, the lottery-funded program that ensures free tuition at state colleges and technical schools for high-performing graduates of Georgia high schools. With tuition rising, enrollment surging, and lottery revenues stagnant, HOPE was headed for insolvency.

Stacey Abrams and Carter spearheaded the Democrats’ efforts to modify the Republicans’ proposed changes to the program. Demonstrating his aptitude for research, Carter pulled data showing each of his fifty-five fellow senators how changes would affect students in their districts. He proposed reinstituting an income cap for HOPE recipients and, over the following sessions, has sponsored bills proposing additional modifications to HOPE.

In 2012 Carter cruised to a 74 percent re-election win, and in the 2013 session continued to focus on education and voting access.

In the 2014 session, Carter voted against Deal’s budget, framing a cornerstone of his campaign. Carter proposes “education-first” budgeting, with one budget for education and another for all other state expenditures. “Our budget process lacks all political accountability when it comes to education funding, and the reason is that it gets mixed in with everything else,” he said. Under his plan, lawmakers’ votes on education spending would be logged separately from those on other state spending. He proposes restoring $1 billion to the state education budget, which he says would be covered by reducing waste and collecting unpaid taxes. (According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia is owed $2.5 billion in taxes.)

While Carter has offered few specifics about the budget, creating such a twofold spending plan would be feasible because in Georgia the governor holds an outsize influence, controlling the state budget and setting spending for each department as well as the discretionary budget. (Roy Barnes, who possesses one of the richest drawls in politics, imitated an even stronger accent as he quoted Herman Talmadge, Georgia governor from 1948 to 1954: “When I was governor of Georgia, I could just pick up the telly-phone and make a call and things got done. When I became a U.S. senator, I realized that my words were just a suggestion.”)

Carter also raised the hackles of Democrats by casting one of the thirty-seven yea votes for HB 60, an expansion of Georgia’s gun laws that allows for firearms in bars, churches, and on some school district properties, and was signed by Deal this July. National Democrats called Carter to express outrage. So did his family. “He heard from all of us that he had no business voting the way that he did. His whole family just asked, ‘Jason, how could you?’” said his stepfather, Robert Thompson. Longtime friends and Red Clay cofounders all said they were surprised by the vote, but understood when Carter explained his position.

Meeting in his office in late August, I asked Carter to give me his explanation. After all, for outsiders, the biggest stories coming from Georgia this year (and ones that made the state a Daily Show darling) were Snowmaggedon and the prospect of “guns everywhere” in a state with one of the country’s highest firearms death rates. Carter said Georgia’s gun laws were more expansive than most realized; guns were allowed in restaurants, for instance. HB 60 clarifies where guns can be carried and gives businesses, churches, and schools a clear opt-out provision, he said. Carter met with Senate Republicans and representatives from the NRA as the bill’s details were hashed out; modifications included removing the “campus carry” provision that would have allowed licensed firearms on colleges. “I am one of the few Democrats that the NRA will talk to. It came down to whether we were going to go with something that was imperfect and make it better and take the political heat,” he said. “I decided to take the political heat.”

Krista Brewer, a longtime Georgia Democratic activist and supporter (she’s donated to Carter’s campaigns), said it was not a vote he had to cast. “A vote against it wouldn’t have hurt him that much in the governor’s race.” She heard complaints about the vote from many in party circles, who said it will keep them from voting for Carter. “I’m not a single-issue voter, and I’m urging people not to be, either,” she said.

Rick Jasperse, a Republican who supported the bill in the House, recalled the conversation in which Carter said he’d vote for HB 60: “I don’t think the appropriate word to describe my reaction is surprised, but happy. We’d worked a lot to make it so that the minority party, the Democrats, would vote for it, and some did.”

There’s a more pragmatic take: HB 60 would have passed without Carter’s vote, but by supporting it, he removed guns as a wedge issue. State Senator Fran Millar, one of the few Republicans who voted against HB 60, said, “I understand why Jason voted the way he did. I was able to vote the way I did because I’m sixty-four years old and not running for another office.”

Before his campaign, the last time I had seen Jason Carter was on a muggy Sunday last year at the Grant Park Farmers Market. He said hello and mentioned my Twitter complaints about unruly large dogs and small children at the market. He gestured at a group picnicking in the grass. “Well, I’m here with my young sons and my big dog,” he said, laughing. He was wearing a faded T-shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops.

A year later, after watching him campaign—trailed by reporters and staff and opposition researchers—I asked if he missed the freedom he’d had that day in the park. As someone whose early years were in the public eye, how did he make the decision to return to it—and take his children with him? “One of the lessons of my life that is maybe not a lesson of other people’s is that people who become governor, become president, are regular people,” he said. “My grandparents are hilariously normal in a lot of ways.” Case in point: In May, Jimmy Carter charmed the Twitterverse when he was spotted flying coach on a crowded Delta flight to Los Angeles.

Kate Carter and her sons at a back-to-school fair in July

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

While campaigning, Carter has tried to maintain regular-dad behavior. He and Kate walked their sons to the first day at Mary Lin Elementary School—but a driver picked Carter up to rush him to a meeting. That afternoon, he was dropped off near the school, and he and the boys celebrated with ice cream at the Candler Park Market—in the brief window before his next stop.

Carter and his wife say that the ages of their sons makes running now better than waiting. “One of the great things about my kids being seven and five: They’re not on Facebook, they don’t care about politics, their friends don’t care about politics, they don’t read the comments on the blogs,” Carter said. “They’re insulated in some ways.” The boys screened the campaign ad in which they appear—“they thought they looked kind of goofy,” Kate Carter said—but aren’t allowed to watch TV, so they have missed the ads attacking their father.

A few days before he was scheduled to address the state party convention, we were in his campaign headquarters—a crammed, noisy space on Spring Street—and Carter was posing for a portrait. “Normally, I never tell people ‘smile’ because they don’t look natural doing it,” said the photographer. “But go ahead; it works for you.” When a man arrived with pizza for the campaign staff, Carter shook his hand.

“Hi, I’m Jason Carter.”

The man responded with a blank stare.

“I’m Jason Carter, and I’m running for governor,” the candidate clarified.

“For governor—of Atlanta?”

“No, for governor of Georgia.”

“Oh, it’s nice to meet you,” said the deliveryman as he headed out the door.

Carter laughed and told the photographer, “Actually, ‘I’m running for governor of all of Georgia—not just Atlanta’ is a line that gets great response when I’m campaigning outside of the city.”

Moments later, the pizza guy returned, holding a handful of menus. “Well, if you are going to be governor, and you ever need some catering, here’s our menu,” he said.

“Do you deliver up near West Paces Ferry Road?” Carter asked. “Because I have two young sons, and after I’m elected, there will be more pizza parties in the governor’s mansion than they have now.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.