1970 Georgia gubernatorial election

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1970 Georgia gubernatorial election

← 1966 November 3, 1970 1974 →
  Jimmy Carter official portrait as Governor.jpg No image.svg
Nominee Jimmy Carter Hal Suit
Party Democratic Republican
Popular vote 620,419 424,983
Percentage 59.3% 40.6%

1970 Georgia gubernatorial election results map by county.svg
County results
Carter:      50–60%      60–70%      70–80%      80–90%      >90%
Suit:      50–60%      60–70%

Governor before election

Lester Maddox

Elected Governor

Jimmy Carter

The 1970 Georgia gubernatorial election was held on November 3, 1970. It was marked by the election as Governor of Georgia of the relatively little-known former state senator Jimmy Carter after a hard battle in the Democratic primary. This election is famous because Carter, who was often regarded as one of the New South Governors, later ran for president in 1976 on his gubernatorial record and won. As of 2022, this was the last time Fulton County voted for the Republican candidate in a gubernatorial election.


Under the Georgia constitution of 1945, incumbent Democratic governor Lester Maddox was prohibited from seeking re-election.

Democratic primary[edit]



Initially the strongest candidate was former governor Carl E. Sanders. Sanders was a moderate, who worked to improve education, the environment and led the transition away from racial segregation with cooperation with the United States Federal Government. He left office at the peak of his popularity.[citation needed]

His main opponent was former state senator and candidate for the gubernatorial nomination in 1966 Jimmy Carter.

Democratic primary election results[edit]

Democratic primary results[1]
Party Candidate Votes %
Democratic Jimmy Carter 388,280 48.62
Democratic Carl Sanders 301,659 37.77
Democratic Chevene Bowers King 70,424 8.82
Democratic J. B. Stoner 17,663 2.21
Democratic McKee Hargett 9,440 1.18
Democratic Thomas J. Irwin 4,184 0.52
Democratic Adam B. Matthews 3,332 0.42
1970 Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial Primary.png


A runoff was held on September 23. Despite Sanders's initial front-runner status and popularity, Carter won by nearly 20 points.

Democratic runoff results[2]
Party Candidate Votes %
Democratic Jimmy Carter 506,462 59.42
Democratic Carl Sanders 345,906 40.58

Lieutenant governor[edit]

Governor Maddox ran for lieutenant governor and won the nomination. Although Maddox was elected as a Democratic candidate at the same time as Jimmy Carter's election as governor as a Democratic candidate, the two were not running mates; in Georgia, particularly in that era of Democratic dominance, the winners of the primary elections went on to easy victories in the general elections without campaigning together as an official ticket or as running mates.

Republican primary[edit]



At this time, Georgia was still regarded as a part of the Democratic Party's Solid South, despite the Republican plurality in the 1966 gubernatorial race. The Democratic position in 1970 was again regarded as safe. TV newsman Hal Suit faced Comptroller James L. Bentley, who had been elected as a Democrat but joined the Republican party in 1968.

Republican primary[edit]

Republican primary results[3]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Hal Suit 62,868 60.97
Republican James L. Bentley 40,251 39.03

General election[edit]

Carter ran on a populist platform. While he refused to join the segregationist White Citizens' Council, he ran a campaign specifically designed to win over the segregationist vote that had made Maddox governor four years earlier.

In winning the governorship back in 1970, he courted the right wing, particularly the large constituency of Lester Maddox, the fiery segregationist Governor ... At one point, he called Mr. Maddox "the essence of the Democratic Party" and added that he was "proud" to be on the ticket with him.[4].

Carter's true feelings about race might be better indicated by the fact that his had been one of only two families which voted to admit blacks to the Plains Baptist Church,[5] but that was not something advertised in the 1970 race for governor.


Carter won the governorship easily.[6]

General election results
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Jimmy Carter 620,419 59.28%
Republican Hal Suit 424,983 40.60%


Civil rights[edit]

Prior to this campaign, Jimmy Carter appeared to be a proponent of civil rights and desegregation. In 1954 he refused to join the White Citizens Council despite immense pressure[7] and went on to vote against segregation for his church in 1965.[5][8] However, after failing to run as a moderate in the Georgia Gubernatorial Election of 1966, Carter's new strategy in 1970 was designed to attract the pro-segregationist vote.[9] Poll data suggested that the appearance of a pro-segregationist position could be critical to winning the race, even if it was never overtly stated.[9] In order to shore up segregationist support, Carter made overtures to numerous racial organizations,[9] and even personally called the cofounder of the White Citizens Council.[10] Carter's apparent support for segregation sparked animosity with his opponent Carl Sanders.[11] Sanders claims that when his own campaign had presented the same poll data, he refused to pursue a strategy on it for moral reasons.[11] Furthermore, Carter's campaign printed numerous pamphlets insinuating Sanders was too "chummy" with blacks.[12]

Ultimately, Carter himself has expressed embarrassment and regret over his strategy.[10] After being elected, he reversed his position on segregation prominently, stating in his 1971 gubernatorial inaugural address "The time for racial discrimination is over."[10] Carter won praise for his strategy from Leroy Johnson, who stated "I understand why he ran that kind of ultra-conservative campaign. You have to do that to win. And that is the main thing. I don't believe you can win [Georgia] without being a racist."[12]


  1. ^ "GA Governor D Primary Race - September 9, 1970". Our Campaigns.
  2. ^ "GA Governor D Primary Race - September 23, 1970". Our Campaigns.
  3. ^ "GA Governor R Primary Race - September 9, 1970". Our Campaigns.
  4. ^ "1976 Surprise: Carter is Running Well". The New York Times. 26 December 1975.
  5. ^ a b The Claremont Institute - Malaise Forever Archived 2007-11-11 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Our Campaigns - GA Governor Race - Nov 03, 1970
  7. ^ "Op-Ed: How Jimmy Carter championed civil rights — and Ronald Reagan didn't". Los Angeles Times. 2015-09-03. Archived from the original on 2015-09-05. Retrieved 2021-03-04.
  8. ^ Times, Wayne King Special to The New York (1976-11-15). "Carter's Church to Admit Blacks and Keep Minister (Published 1976)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-03-04.
  9. ^ a b c Sanders, Randy. Mighty Peculiar Elections: The New South Gubernatorial Campaigns of 1970 and the Changing Politics of Race.
  10. ^ a b c Alter, Jonathan (2020-09-18). "When Jimmy Carter Was Silent on Civil Rights". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2021-03-04.
  11. ^ a b Torpy, Bill; Journal-Constitution, The Atlanta. "The political grudge Carl Sanders takes to his grave". ajc. Retrieved 2021-03-04.
  12. ^ a b A Legacy of Leadership: Governors and American History. July 16, 2008.