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Republican Candidates for Governor Run to the Right

We’ve talked about the difficulty facing Democratic primary voters who must choose between two candidates for governor holding similar positions on basic issues important to Democrats. That situation is more than doubly difficult in a Republican primary, where the five leading candidates are all trying to run to the right of each other.

The basic dynamics of the primary haven’t changed. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is the frontrunner, with a commanding 30-point lead in the polls over his closest challenger, but he is still about 10 points shy of winning without a runoff. That leaves the others to fight and claw to see who’s the most conservative and most deserving of forcing their way into a runoff.

Several weeks ago, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks gestations and gives the state the most stringent restrictions in the nation. Secretary of State Brian Kemp promptly backed such a ban in Georgia. “If abortion rights activists want to sue me . . . bring it!” he tweeted.  “I’ll fight for life at the Capitol and in the courtroom.”

Shortly after Kemp’s challenge was issued, state Sen. Michael Williams said he would go even farther and sign legislation to ban abortions after six to eight weeks. “Georgia can ban abortion after a heartbeat is detected at six to eight weeks if we have a fearless conservative leading our state,” Williams said.

Then there was the case of Atlanta’s historic Clermont Hotel, which for years harbored a topless lounge in its basement. A bill passed during the 2015 legislative session provided a tax credit for the restoration of historic buildings. Cagle did not vote on the bill, but he did make an appearance at the 2016 reopening of the Clermont. That left Cagle open to attack from Clay Tippins, a business consultant and political novice, who ran a TV spot declaring: “Casey Cagle talks about his Georgia values, but he championed tax cuts for a strip club.”

It is on the issue of gun rights that the struggle to differentiate the candidates becomes most desperate. Cagle is more or less the default leader here, having secured the endorsement of the National Rifle Association for his insistence that Delta Air Lines lose a lucrative tax break this year for ending a discount airfare program for NRA members. That hasn’t stopped the other candidates from insisting they are really most deserving of that NRA endorsement.

Hunter Hill, a former Army Ranger, made the mistake of suggesting he would support raising the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21. In the wake of a horrific mass shooting in Parkland, FL, where 17 students or faculty were gunned down, that wouldn’t seem to be an unreasonable position. But not for Tippins, who aired a commercial making this inflammatory statement: “Hunter Hill talks like he’s Rambo, but he’s really a Benedict Arnold who’s for gun control. Just ask the NRA.”

Even for Congressman Jody Hice, who’s as far to the right as they come, it was a bit much. Hice had to step in and serve as the voice of reason. “Likening Hunter Hill for Governor – an honorable veteran who led soldiers on 3 combat tours overseas – to ‘Benedict Arnold’ (our nation’s first traitor) is just plain wrong,” Hice posted on Facebook.  

The GOP primary has devolved into a battle between the far-right and the far-far-right. How does a voter choose?