NewsNews Features

Secret Tape Has Brian Kemp Surging in the Governor’s Race

“This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck and who could be the craziest,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said, channeling his inner Cee-Lo in a conversation that was secretly recorded by Clay Tippins, whom Cagle had just bested in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Journalist Michael Kinsley defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Cagle’s statement certainly qualifies.

The tape—which also features Cagle explaining to Tippins that he had to support an education bill he considered bad policy or a political action committee would give millions to another opponent, Hunter Hill—has turned the race upside down. On May 22, Secretary of State Brian Kemp trailed Cagle 26 percent to 39 percent in a five-man race. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution/WSB poll gave Kemp a slight lead in the runoff, 44 percent to 41 percent.

Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed Cagle Monday, which could slow Kemp’s momentum. But on Tuesday, a former Hill staffer leaked a third portion of the Tippins tape, in which Cagle expresses sympathy for the poor and a desire to cut poverty in half—concerns that could do as much damage in a GOP primary as Mitt Romney’s also secretly recorded “47 percent” speech did in the 2012 general election.

Cagle’s “craziest” comment was most likely in reference to Kemp’s campaign ads. In one, Kemp points a shotgun at his daughter’s (fictional) suitor while declaring his love for the Second Amendment. In another, he brags in an exaggerated drawl about rounding up “criminal illegals” in his pickup truck. The usually soft-spoken Cagle, meanwhile, has released his own fiery ads attacking Kemp, liberals and the Mexican gang MS-13.

Kemp has used the tape to cast Cagle as two-faced. “His foundation is on trust,” Barrow County Sheriff Jud Smith said while introducing Kemp at a Winder barbecue restaurant recently. “He tells you he’s gonna do something, he’s gonna do it. Other campaigns are not. It’s in the news. It’s a fact.”

Cagle called the tape a “set up” during an Atlanta Press Club debate last week. “Who does this?” he said. “Who is a person that is that evil in their heart, to come in and mislead someone in a way that leads them down a path, to get them to say certain things, that they can then shape a narrative around?”

The two candidates have also sparred over who’s the bigger supporter of President Trump. Cagle originally endorsed the relatively moderate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and he has accused Kemp of supporting another moderate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “Since the day I got into the race, I’ve been very consistent,” Kemp told Flagpole. “Cagle’s the one who’s trying to be the Trump guy, but he was the Jeb Bush guy. Now he’s trying to be the Nathan Deal/Donald Trump guy… He’s trying to be everything to everybody.”

Their allies have even gone so far as to call for criminal charges against the other—Cagle for accepting bribes and Kemp for accepting illegal campaign donations from businesses his office regulates.

Meanwhile, Cagle has dredged up some of Kemp’s old positions from when he represented Athens in the state Senate from 2003–2006. Years before Obamacare and Deal refusing to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid, Kemp supported a state Medicaid expansion program modeled after Republican former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson’s “Badgercare.” Kemp defended the program as welfare-to-work. “I’ve always had a conservative voting record,” he said. “I took a lot of grief for a lot of votes in Clarke County.”

Cagle has also attacked Kemp over various scandals during his eight-year tenure as secretary of state. In 2015, his office erroneously removed 8,000 people from voting rolls. His then-election director, Linda Ford, resigned. (Ford, now co-director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, declined to comment.) Later that year, Kemp’s office accidentally released the personal information of 6 million voters, and he was forced to provide them with free credit monitoring for a year. On a personal level, he’s an investor in a Kentucky agricultural company that has been hit with lawsuits claiming investors have not paid back loans.

“Casey Cagle has led alongside Gov. Deal to get things done,” campaign manager Scott Binkley said in a statement. “Just like President Trump, Casey keeps his word and delivers results for hard-working conservatives. Meanwhile, Brian Kemp mucks things up by stiffing farmers, defaulting on loans, releasing Social Security numbers twice, and wiping servers to cover his tracks just like Hillary Clinton. Brian Kemp has proven himself to be too incompetent and untrustworthy to be Georgia’s next governor.”

Kemp, though, appears to have the momentum, and is in line to become the first gubernatorial nominee from Athens in modern history. A couple hundred people gathered at Smokin’ Po’ Boys in Winder on a recent Sunday to hear him speak during the first stop on a two-week, 37-city bus tour. For at least a few minutes, the sniping and extremism subsided, as Kemp focused mainly on economic development and cutting regulations. He stuck around for almost an hour, shaking hands and posing for selfies, as the restaurant emptied out.

Being from Athens—or, rather, outside of Atlanta—is an advantage, according to Kemp. “It’d be great to have a governor from the area who understands the issues,” he told Flagpole. “I think the reason I’m doing so well in the race is, I’m the guy who understands the whole state. [Cagle] has been [in Atlanta] a lot longer than me, but he doesn’t really know the state or understand it as well as I do.”

If he wins the July 24 runoff, Kemp will face Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former House minority leader and an unabashed progressive. Democrats, who’ve been wandering in the wilderness of Georgia politics for over a decade, are salivating at the idea of facing a battered and flawed Republican candidate. “Regardless of who emerges, Georgia voters have made their voices loud and clear. Neither Kemp nor Cagle are suited to be the next governor in our state,” DuBose Porter, chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, said in a statement. “In November, Georgia will have a choice between bold leadership under Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams or setbacks and political kickbacks under the one who emerges as the Republican nominee in the fall.”

Although nominees have historically tacked toward the center for the general election, Kemp said he’s sticking with his conservative positions, and he doesn’t expect Abrams to budge from the left, either. “I don’t think you can run from who you are,” he said. “I’ll take that race all day long.”

How to Vote: Any registered voter who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary is eligible to vote in the Republican runoff, whether they voted in the Republican primary, only took a nonpartisan ballot or didn’t vote at all. Likewise, anyone who didn’t vote in the Republican primary is eligible to vote in the Democratic runoff. Early voting runs through Friday, July 20 at the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections, 155 E. Washington St. Polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Check for information about voter registration status, polling places and sample ballots.

Here’s a look at other races on the ballot.

Lieutenant Governor (Republican): Former state Sen. David Shafer of Duluth came within a percentage point of winning the primary outright, but he’s facing former state Rep. Geoff Duncan in the runoff. Shafer served as president pro tempore, the Senate’s No. 2 position, for the past five years and is supported by most of the state’s GOP establishment. He lists cutting taxes as his top priority. Duncan has positioned himself as an outsider who wants to end legislative horse-trading.

Secretary of State (Republican): Former Johns Creek Rep. Brad Raffensperger received 35 percent of the vote and former Alpharetta mayor David Bell Isle 29 percent in a four-man field May 22. Raffensperger is touting his business experience—the secretary of state’s office regulates 700,000 professionals in addition to elections—while Belle Isle has made preventing voter fraud his top issue, vowing to extend the state’s voter ID law to absentee ballots. Both candidates favor updating Georgia’s electronic voting machines to create a paper trail. The winner will face former congressman John Barrow of Athens in November.

State School Superintendent (Democrat): Two candidates are seeking to face Republican incumbent Richard Woods in November. Sid Chapman is president of the Georgia Association of Educators, a teachers’ advocacy group. He supports more education funding, higher teacher pay and less “toxic testing.” Otha Thornton is an Army veteran and former president of the National PTA who, like Chapman and the GAE, participated in the effort to defeat the “opportunity school district” charter school amendment in 2016. He also supports additional funding for education, as well as a focus on critical thinking and vocational education. Thornton received 44 percent of the vote and Chapman 36 percent May 22.