ATLANTA - Gov. Nathan Deal, who learned the art of legislating during nearly two decades in Congress and as a state senator before that, has put those lessons to work as Georgia's chief executive.
Since taking office in 2011, the soft-spoken Republican has navigated two tight budget cycles - he's in the midst of a third - and won legislative battles on education and taxes.
He has made progress on deals to avoid crushing cuts in Medicaid and to help Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank get a new football stadium, all the while helping state lawmakers to avoid unpopular votes. And he's managed to claim as his own a Democratic proposal to expand HOPE scholarships at technical colleges after scaling back the popular program in his first year.
Deal, 70, has also been lucky. President Barack Obama has proved an easy foil in GOP-trending Georgia, and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss' announcement that he won't seek a third term will make that the marquee race in 2014, drawing candidates and money that might have been focused on unseating Deal.
"The Deal team feels good about where we are 18 months out of a primary," said Brian Robinson, the governor's top communication adviser.
However, Democrats argue that Deal is vulnerable, with many Georgians thinking the state is on the wrong track.
Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, conceded Deal's political effectiveness. "But what good is that for Georgia?" he said. "Nathan Deal will placate the tea party and manage his legislative majorities and 650,000 Georgians will still have no health insurance."
But as national Democrats set their sights - and resources - on the Senate race, it's not clear the party can support two statewide campaigns.
Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon promised a strong effort but declined to speculate about possible gubernatorial hopefuls, and he conceded that identifying a Senate candidate will come first.
Republican strategist Bert Brantley said the threat of another economic downturn is likely Deal's only re-election barrier. He said Deal has fared well despite the struggling economy and the state's budgetary woes.
"It's hard when you are in the governor's seat to do the big things you might want to do if you don't have the money to do them," he said.
Still, Deal has come a long way from 2010, when he was a sitting congressman beset by a House ethics investigation and an underdog in a hard-fought GOP primary.
The Office of Congressional Ethics review focused on Deal's meetings with the state's revenue commissioner to preserve a lucrative arrangement with his Gainesville auto salvage business. A report released in 2010 by the independent, non-partisan entity said Deal may have violated House rules. But he left Congress before any action could be taken and he was never charged with any wrongdoing. Deal also agreed last year to pay $3,350 to settle three ethics complaints filed against him over his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Halfway through his term, though, Deal seems to have moved beyond those questions. Political observers also say he has managed to avoid two common pitfalls for governors: Failing to navigate the Legislature or manage internal party friction.
"From a purely management perspective, he's been pretty decent," Berlon said begrudgingly.
House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, called Deal "a very effective partner" and a skilled tactician. "He has translated that ability into enhancing his power as the chief executive," he said.
On the stadium issue, Deal consistently says the burden is on Blank to convince the public that it's worth using Atlanta hotel tax revenue to support at least $200 million in government bonds to help build a new football stadium. But a lack of public support made Deal and legislators wary about raising the state debt limit. Deal never openly pushed for the stadium, but he also never opposed it. He quietly pushed Blank to lower his bond request, and now it appears downtown Atlanta could still get a retractable-roof structure to replace the Georgia Dome. Hotel tax revenue would still be used, but the city of Atlanta would issue the debt.
It's a similar story on Medicaid.
A 2010 tax on hospitals expires this year. The revenue is used to qualify for additional Medicaid financing that, in turn, boosts payments to hospitals. While the state doesn't want to lose $450 million in federal Medicaid money, Republicans feared they would invite primary challenges if they extended a tax.
Deal's solution: Let a state health board - which he appoints, no less - set the hospital levy. In a legislature with 236 seats, barely two dozen members voted against the idea.
"He's a very good communicator," said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican. "He lets us know the strategy, and he's willing to take other viewpoints in order to make it something we can all be comfortable with."
Medicaid, meanwhile, also provided Deal with an opportunity to assuage tea party conservatives who might otherwise mistrust an establishment politician who was elected to the General Assembly and Congress as a Democrat.
Under the 2010 health care law, Washington would pay 100 percent of the costs of expanding Medicaid from 2014 to 2016. The federal share would gradually decrease to 90 percent by 2020, with the states paying the remaining 10 percent. The law could extend health coverage to hundreds of thousands of Georgians who lack it.
But Deal joined other Southern Republican governors in steadfastly refusing to expand Medicaid, saying it would cost the state too much down the road. Since his announcement, several GOP governors have backed the Medicaid expansion, saying it's a good deal for their states.
Deal also has declined a second anchor of Obama's new law: state-run insurance exchanges where consumers can shop for policies from private insurers. He has left it to the federal government to craft and run the Georgia marketplace.
Those stands earned Deal a "constitutional defender" award from the Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots.
"Governor Deal stood strong," said Atlanta tea party organizer Debbie Dooley. She added that she "visited with him personally" this week after Ohio's Republican governor agreed to expand Medicaid.
Added Dooley: "He assured me we weren't going down that road here."
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