Who Will Win Georgia’s Insane GOP Gubernatorial Runoff?

Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp have had a largely unfriendly GOP runoff campaign. Photo: John Bazemore/AP/REX/Shutterstock

From 1872 until 2002, every governor of Georgia was a Democrat. There have now been two Republican governors of the Peach State since Reconstruction (current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and outgoing incumbent Nathan Deal). Thanks to favorable demographic trends (a sizable and growing minority population and plenty of upscale college-educated folk of every background, many of them transplants from beyond the Deep South), the Donkey Party is optimistic about regaining its ancient grip on the state. Some think that revival could occur beginning with this year’s gubernatorial contest, given a good national tailwind and the considerable enthusiasm that Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams has generated.

Democrats have also counted on a large and abrasive GOP gubernatorial field to burnish the party’s extremist reputation and dampen Republican enthusiasm. And so far, going into the July 24 runoff between Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the GOP has not disappointed. They have largely behaved like the general election is theirs no matter how they conduct themselves. And what had been a sort of a nasty low-grade skirmish has blown up into something else as larger forces have taken over the Cagle–Kemp contest.

Cagle, who has been lieutenant governor since 2002, was the front-runner from the beginning of the cycle, and initially looked like someone who might win without a runoff (Georgia requires majorities for party nominations). Though the obvious “Establishment Republican” candidate, the “Establishment” in Georgia is pretty hard-core conservative, and the entire field ran conspicuously to the right of the very popular Nathan Deal (notably they all criticized the incumbent for vetoing a questionably drafted “religious liberty” bill, and stampeded, against Deal’s wishes, to punish Atlanta-based Delta Airlines for breaking off its special relationship with the National Rifle Association). But Cagle’s rivals went the extra mile to treat him as insufficiently conservative and themselves as hard-core, gun-hugging, Trump-worshiping enemies of illegal immigration and all things liberal.

Brian Kemp won the sub-primary to become the right-wing challenger to Cagle, winning 23 percent to the front-runner’s underwhelming 39 percent in the May 22 primary. Here’s how the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described Kemp’s campaign as the runoff began:

[A] pair of provocative spots – and the roughly $1 million his campaign put behind them – appeared to help fuel his rise past former state Sen. Hunter Hill to a spot in a July 24 runoff against Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. One featured him cleaning a shotgun next to “Jake,” a young suitor of his daughter who nervously shifted in his seat. The other featured explosions, guns, a chainsaw – and a boast that he has a big pickup truck “just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself.”

Cagle also contributed to the outcome by heavily targeting his well-funded media campaign on Hunter Hill. This was decision that had a strange afterlife just after the primary when Cagle admitted he’d changed his position on a controversial bill in order to deny Hill a potentially lucrative endorsement (that conversation was taped, with part of it leaked to the media and another part leaked to Brian Kemp’s campaign).

Until recently the runoff campaign has had two features. The first involved dueling ethics allegations against both candidates. Aside from the money-related flip-flop mentioned above, Cagle was charged with buying a condo from a lobbyist at a below-market price, while Kemp got heat for the terrible performance of a company he partially owned, and for taking campaign contributions from professionals he regulated as secretary of state. Beyond that, Kemp has intensified the hard-core ideological message of his primary campaign, calling himself “politically incorrect” and purporting to be the Trumpiest of the very Trumpy Georgia Republicans. Cagle, who took a hit among conservative believers for complaining privately that the whole GOP nomination contest had become a test of “who could be the craziest,” tried to shore up his own “base” bona fides via an appearance with NRA president Oliver North.

There was a sense that the summer timing of the runoff, the lack of that many offices on the ballot, and the nastiness of the GOP gubernatorial contest, might depress turnout, which was relatively low during the GOP primary (indeed, a big part of Cagle’s strategy was an expensive early voting effort, which helped produce a healthy turnout of 239,000 GOP votes during the July 2–20 window for in-person early voting).

Then during the last week of the runoff campaign everything changed.

First Cagle got a much-prized endorsement from Nathan Deal, who is leaving office as a very popular governor. With polls showing a very tight race, it seemed Deal might prove to be the kingmaker. But then three days later the real bombshell hit when Donald Trump sent out this tweet with no warning:

The endorsement seemed to come as a surprise to everyone in Georgia, including Brian Kemp and his staff. One theory is that Trump’s Cabinet member Sonny Perdue and his cousin Senator David Perdue prevailed on POTUS to intervene (Kemp was first appointed secretary of state by Perdue). A more exotic notion is that highly influential Christian right operative Ralph Reed pulled Trump across the line, thereby securing cold-dish revenge for Cagle’s 2006 primary win over Reed, which abruptly ended his budding electoral career. Perhaps Trump saw one of Kemp’s atavistic ads and just plain enjoyed it.

In any event, the runoff has turned into a surrogate battle between the two most popular Republicans in Georgia, Trump and Deal. Kemp had already pulled narrowly ahead in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll before the dual endorsements. Two polls released since then have shown larger Kemp leads. Mike Pence appeared at an event for Kemp over the weekend. Cagle better hope his early-voting investment pays off big, and that many MAGA fans voted for him before finding out Trump favored his opponent. Both candidates are from exurban territory just outside metro Atlanta (Cagle is from Gainesville, Kemp from Athens). While Kemp has to be considered the favorite now, it could go either way.

Meanwhile Democrats are hoping the whole spectacle divides and discourages Republicans and appalls swing voters. A recent poll from SUSA shows both Kemp and Cagle virtually tied with Abrams. That’s about as good a starting point for the general election as Democrats could have hoped for, particular given the weaknesses the primary and runoff have exposed in both GOP candidacies. If Kemp does win the nomination, he has a particular history with Abrams over her efforts to register previously untapped reservoirs of minority voters, and his supervision as Georgia’s chief election official of aggressive voter purge initiatives that push the limits of federal and state laws and take advantage of weak Voting Rights Act enforcement by the courts and the Trump administration.

Georgia Democrats will not simply be sitting down with popcorn and enjoying the GOP fight on July 24, however. They are holding congressional runoffs in two north Atlanta districts that are long shot but not impossible targets for November. One is in the now-famous Sixth District, where Democrat Jon Ossoff came very close to beating Republican Karen Handel in a wildly expensive special election last summer for what had been a reliably Republican seat. This time Handel will face the winner of a Democratic runoff, with national gun-control spokesperson Lucy McBath, an African-American woman who is also backed by Emily’s List, is favored over self-financing businessman Kevin Abel. In the neighboring Seventh District, where incumbent Republican Rob Woodall is showing some signs of vulnerability, another Emily’s List favorite, Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, faces another self-funder, David Kim, who is trying to capitalize on the district’s rapidly increasing Asian-American population.

Change is the name of the political game in Georgia, but the pace of change will determine whether the much-discussed Democratic breakthrough is nigh or just over the horizon.

Who Will Win Georgia’s Insane GOP Gubernatorial Runoff?