By Greg Bluestein
Gov. Nathan Deal's conference call with GOP lawmakers this morning was less of a defense of his office's role in the fallout over the ethics memo and more of an impassioned plea for fellow Republicans to regroup against Democrats mounting a growing threat to their political supremacy.
Trailing in fundraising and lagging in a recent poll behind Democrat Jason Carter, Deal suggested that the ethics memo has given his campaign a jolt. He said he's been "somewhat deferential" during the long runoff period to avoid distracting attention from GOP races for Senate and superintendent, but that will change with tomorrow's contest.
"If you don't think I'm willing to fight, let me remind you of my background," he said, recounting 15 election victories since 1980. "I have never lost and I do not intend to lose now. This is my last race. I am looking for no higher office."
He told more than 50 GOP legislators that they would suffer if Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, were to wrest control of the governor's mansion. Said Deal:
"He will use the bully pulpit of the governor's office to beat you into the ground and you will have no opportunity to respond. He will pick you off, one by one if necessary, until he regains control of the Legislature He will set you up as the target of demagoguery."
And he added: "If we have a Governor Carter, do you not believe he will immediately start to follow his grandfather's footsteps so he can be a second President Carter?"
Carter's campaign spokesman Bryan Thomas said the conference call was a sign that "other Republican leaders are reluctant to jump to his defense."
"You know you have problems when you have to beg your own party officials for money and air cover," Thomas said.
Deal said the hubbub around the memo, in which ethics chief Holly LaBerge accused his top aides of threatening her to make campaign complaints "go away," amounted to a "political effort to discredit me." And he questioned the "strange" timing of its emergence, noting that it was released in public for the first time last week.
"Let me ask you a practical question: What could the governor's office threaten her with? We could not fire her We could not cut her salary We could not take or give rule-making authority to the commission."
(In each case, he said, the answer either with the ethics commission's five-member board or state lawmakers -- although the bid to restore the rule-making authority of the state ethics commission, which passed in 2013, required the signature of the governor.)
Deal said the GOP's successes "infuriates" Democrats, particularly CNBC's recent ranking of Georgia as the No. 1 place in the nation to do business.
"When CNBC ratified that we were the number one state in the nation to do business, it drove them crazy," he said.
"We are the beacon for progress in the United States at the state level. Let's not abandon it," he said, adding: "We have great things that lie ahead of us. But we have to be there to make it happen."
He urged the GOP officials to "step up" and donate to his campaign rally supporters to the wave of fundraisers he'll be hosting in the next 45 days. And he asked them to support him in the media and at local gatherings when voters raise questions about his ethics and his record.
"I told you this is my last race," he said. "And we're not going to leave anything on the table."