Photo Credit: Savannah Cole
Secretary of State Brian Kemp completed a stunning comeback Tuesday 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 President Donald Trump and a rally Saturday 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 tonight, with 92 percent of precincts reporting. Kemp won 83 percent of the vote in Clarke County.
"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, the city Kemp calls home and he represented in the state Senate from 2003–2006. 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 tonight, thanking him for his service and inviting his supporters to join the Kemp campaign.
Then came last week's "tweet that was heard around Georgia," as Kemp put it, referring to Trump's unexpected 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," he said.
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 billionare donors than you all hard-working Georgians."
And he 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."
In other races:
• Former state Rep. Geoff Duncan held a narrow 3,000-vote lead over former state Sen. David Shafer—a surprise, considering Shafer nearly won the nomination outright with 49 percent of the vote May 22. The winner will face businesswoman Sarah Riggs Amico.
• Former state Rep. Brad Raffensperger defeated former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle 62 percent to 38 percent in the GOP runoff for secretary of state. He'll face former Athens commissioner and congressman John Barrow.
• In the Democratic runoff for school superintendent, Otha Thornton beat Sid Chapman 59 percent to 41 percent and will face incumbent Richard Woods.