President Donald Trump might wear baggy suits, but he doesn’t have long coattails. He has a mixed record endorsing candidates across the country.
But in Georgia, there is one Trump to rule them all. That was proven when Secretary of State Brian Kemp completed a stunning comeback July 24 to win the Republican nomination for governor overwhelmingly in a runoff against Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
Although Cagle began the race as the heavy favorite because of his three successful statewide races and a big fundraising advantage, Kemp parlayed a secret recording that damaged Cagle, an endorsement from Trump and a rally with Vice President Mike Pence into what Kemp called a “clear and convincing victory.”
In a race that revolved around big trucks, shotguns, chainsaws and who could take a more over-the-top stance against illegal immigration, that may have been the only understatement. Kemp trailed Cagle 39-26 in a five-man primary May 22, but won 69 percent of the vote to Cagle’s 31 percent in the runoff. Kemp won 83 percent of the vote in his native Clarke County and even won in Cagle’s Hall County backyard.
“We kept choppin’,” Kemp said, borrowing a slogan from UGA head football coach Kirby Smart.
Supporters packed into a sweltering ballroom at the Holiday Inn in downtown Athens, and cheers rang out when Cagle called to concede to Kemp just an hour and a half after polls closed at 7 p.m.
Kemp was able to consolidate the support of former state Sens. Michael Williams and Hunter Hill and businessman Clay Tippins, his other opponents in the primary, all of whom endorsed Kemp.
The runoff at least partially hinged on a secret recording Tippins made of a conversation with Cagle after the May 22 election. In one part, circulated by Tippins, Cagle is heard describing how he pushed through an education bill he considered “bad policy” because a PAC threatened to donate millions to Hill. In a second snippet, released by the Kemp campaign, Cagle says, “This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck and who could be the craziest.” The third, released by a former Hill staffer, features Cagle talking about his sympathy for the poor—an apparent no-no in Republican circles.
The recording allowed Kemp to paint Cagle as two-faced, although he offered the lieutenant governor an olive branch after the runoff, thanking him for his service and inviting his supporters to join the Kemp campaign. “I think those tapes… just showed the real Casey,” said Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, who lives in nearby Comer and served with Kemp and under Cagle in the state Senate.
Then came the “tweet that was heard around Georgia,” as Kemp put it, referring to Trump’s unexpected July 18 endorsement. It more than neutralized popular Gov. Nathan Deal’s endorsement of Cagle the day before. “Those endorsements by the president and vice president, they poured gasoline on the fire and fueled the Kemp surge to victory,” Kemp said.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, public polls showed Kemp with a slight lead. That was before the president whipped out his Android, though. “It probably doubled the points he was up by, maybe more,” former Athens and Georgia Republican Party chairman John Padgett said.
That may have been another understatement. The AJC’s Greg Bluestein obtained internal polling data from the Cagle campaign that showed both candidates in the low 40s on July 18. Post-tweet, Kemp’s support shot up to 60 percent, while Cagle’s cratered into the 30s.
With Cagle dispatched, Kemp wasted little time in turning his attention to former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, his November opponent. Kemp and Abrams—perhaps the most conservative and liberal nominees for governor in decades—have a long history of sparring over voter registration and stark policy differences.
“Hillary Clinton, George Soros and Nancy Pelosi all have Georgia on their minds,” Kemp said, citing three of Republicans’ favorite Democratic bogeymen as the crowd of hundreds booed.
Kemp called Abrams “an out-of-touch radical liberal who cares more about her billionaire donors than you all hard-working Georgians.” He labeled her a “career politician,” even though Kemp has been in office two years longer than Abrams was, and is a full-time administrator with a $130,000 salary, not a part-time legislator who makes $17,000.
And Kemp took a Trumpian swipe at journalists. “The fake news media machine will do everything in its power to prop her up,” he said. “Their attacks will be vicious, baseless and constant.”
Will Kemp be able to continue Republicans’ decade-plus of dominance in Georgia politics? “I don’t know. It’s going to be tough,” Hudgens said. “If the general public knows where [Abrams] stands, they’re not gonna go for it. She’s way too liberal for Georgia.”
But Georgia is slowly changing demographically, getting younger and browner; pundits are calling 2018 the Year of the Woman; and a blue wave is coming, supposedly. Running to the center hasn’t worked for Georgia Democrats in 20 years, so Abrams will try to excite her base, just as Kemp is doing to his. Abrams is getting a lot of national attention, too. She, not Kemp, was on the cover of Time last week.
So far, Abrams has studiously ignored Kemp’s attacks. She embarked on a “Jobs for Georgia” bus tour last week, unveiling a plan in Savannah to create 22,000 apprenticeships and 25,000–45,000 jobs in solar, wind, hydroelectric and biomass energy. Eventually, though, she’ll have to engage with Kemp. This race will get nasty, with unprecedented amounts of money pouring in on both sides. Get ready for a long four months.
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