Five candidates are running for the Georgia Republican nomination to succeed Governor Nathan Deal. Whoever gets the nomination will have one distinction neither Deal nor Perdue had. The Republican nominee will be the first actual lifelong Republican elected governor in Georgia.
I say that intentionally. Democrats are convinced a blue wave will wash over Georgia. I do not think it will go as high as the statewide offices. Georgia will see the Republican numbers in the state legislature reduced in the metro Atlanta area, which will, in turn, be bad for various metro areas policy-wise, but the statewide offices will stay Republican.
Democrats have blessed the GOP with Stacey Abrams, who is a very strong candidate and far more charming and personable than most in the GOP would have you believe. But she is also very much on the left and is surrounded with supporters and donors who the GOP will use to scare voters. And they will be effective in that.
Of the five would be governors, three seem to have the most likely shot of getting into an inevitable runoff. Lt. Governor Casey Cagle will be assured a spot in the runoff. He has been elected statewide twice as Lt. Governor. He has served in the State Senate since the Gingrich revolution days of the mid-90’s. A who’s who of establishment Republicans like him so much that he is repeatedly forced in his ads to refer to himself as “conservative Casey Cagle” as if “conservative” is his first name. Cagle’s biggest asset, his tenure, is also his biggest weakness. Lt. Governors tend to stand in the shadow of the Governor and have few accomplishments of their own. Cagle has worked hard to get those accomplishments but will be attacked relentlessly over what his opponents say is a long tenure as a career politician with nothing to show for it. He has about ten million dollars to show them in response and will use every penny to win.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp will most likely join Cagle in the runoff. The only other person running with statewide name identification and a statewide office, Kemp is a natural everyman. Cagle dresses sharply as someone who once owned a suit shop. Kemp is more comfortable in jeans. Kemp has done a competent job as Secretary of State, but there are issues some would portray as scandals. His predecessors allowed a local university to maintain voter data and that university did not secure the data. When the elections office sent out voter data, it contained the social security numbers of all voters. Kemp’s office quickly corrected it, but the damage to his reputation took a hit. Abrams has already battled Kemp in court over voter registration. Kemp has, to some degree, been a victim of the incompetence of local officials in the metro Atlanta area. His office got the blame for their mistakes.
Former State Senator Hunter Hill is a conservative Republicans who won a district Hillary Clinton also won. It is the Buckhead area of Atlanta and is the swing district of swing districts in the state. It is notable that most of the conservative legislators in the Georgia General Assembly are rallying to Hill. His opponents have been attacking him for the cold shoulder given by the NRA. He got a “C” when he first ran for office. He says it was because he screwed up a question on their survey. He has an “A” now but controversially did not get an endorsement from the NRA in 2016. He says it was intentional to avoid riling up the Democrats in his district and that it worked. He has weak name identification outside the Atlanta area, but with the Atlanta area turning out so large, that won’t matter too much.
Clay Tippins, like Hill, is a veteran. He is also a businessman who entered the race promising to bring business proficiency to the office. He is a self-made man, but his financial disclosures suggest he does not have as much spare money to put into his campaign as some first thought. Likewise, his advertising has been well designed, but also expensive. His media consultants are charging him a great deal. Tippins’ message has resonated in the business community across the state, and though he has lower name identification than Cagle, Kemp, and Hill, he has done a marvelous job boosting his name within the business community. Tippins has been hurt a bit by his patent refusal to support a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Georgia, but he smartly offset it by being the only candidate to pledge to fight human trafficking. It also has the benefit of being an authentic concern. Tippins and his wife have fought to raise awareness on that issue for several years and care passionately about it.
State Senator Michael Williams is running a bit of an odd campaign. Just four years ago or so, Williams beat the incumbent Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. The Chamber of Commerce in Georgia not only opposed Williams, but an offshoot political branch of the local Chamber literally printed mail pieces against Williams accusing him of beating his wife. It was a nasty campaign. Since getting elected, Williams and the Chamber have mended fences, but he has been a pretty reliable social conservative in the State Senate. He is now, however, not really running on his record and his small business acumen. Williams is a serial entrepreneur with a lot of personal cash and a compelling story. But he is running as mini-Trump, holding rallies outside schools to protest liberal teachers, etc. His campaign has been outlandish and does not really reflect the authentic Williams. It has so far failed to attract people, and I continue to think it is a strategic miscalculation.
I listed the candidates in the order above because it reflects the Atlanta Journal-Constitution polling. Cagle has just over 40% of the support with Kemp at 9%, Hill at 8%, and both Tippins and Williams around 4%. About a third of voters are undecided. That is great news for Cagle, but with such high name identification and a third of voters undecided it could also be a weakness for Cagle in the runoff. That is why I suspect it will get very nasty very quickly after the primary concludes.
Cagle became Lt. Governor in 2006 after battling Ralph Reed in one of the nastiest fights in Georgia political history. Cagle savaged Reed, bashing him constantly and relentlessly for all sorts of ethical transgressions. It was a constant stream of negativity and worked. Reed was radioactive, and the guy with lower name identification beat the guy everyone knew. Cagle’s consultant in that race now works for Brian Kemp. Cagle and Kemp both have millions more than the other guys. Cagle has run a rather positive campaign with some savvy positioning in the last legislative session (Delta v. the NRA). Kemp is only just now spending his money having gambled, probably correctly, that he should wait till the end and secure his place in the runoff.
Once the primary ends on May 22nd, we are off to the real races. The Georgia Republican primary has been pretty quiet. It probably will be for the next few weeks. Then we will see some scorched earth.