Casey Cagle begins his tightrope walk to a 2018 campaign for governor

For the next two years, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle will be the man on a wire.

He’ll tread the same tightrope as many other Republicans, the taut line between social conservatives whose votes keep the GOP in power and a business class whose cash makes the machine go.

But given his position as leader of the state Senate, and the fact that the 2018 race for governor is nearer than it looks, Cagle’s perch is higher than most. Any lurch to one side or another is sure to prompt a gasp or two from the crowd below.

Some are gasping now.

Last week, the lieutenant governor set up a website announcing a campaign to “keep faith in sports.” Cagle said he would take up the cause of a high school athlete disqualified from a cross country track meet because of a Bible verse on his sweatband. Not a problem.

Also last week, Cagle sent out a fundraising letter aimed at religious conservatives, promising to mount a campaign to save chaplains paid by university athletic foundations. An out-of-state and otherwise ignored atheist group had, back in August, questioned whether public monies were going toward religious counseling of players. Again, no problem.

But these lines in the Cagle letter raised eyebrows: “The Obama administration and liberals across the nation are gaining major victories that threaten every aspect of our principles. Abortions. Same-sex marriage. Prayer in schools. You name it. But not in Georgia.”

Same-sex marriage? “Not in Georgia”? If the lieutenant governor is about to give Georgia’s chambers of commerce heartburn, that’s a problem.

Some explanation is in order.

More so than last year, business groups in Georgia have made clear their overt opposition to Senate Bill 129, a “religious liberty” measure that many conservative Christians believe would exempt some open-to-the-public businesses from transactions involving gay marriage ceremonies.

Gay rights activists and the Metro Atlanta and Georgia chambers fear the measure, sponsored by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, would signal tolerance for discrimination — and prompt an economic backlash.

SB 129 passed Cagle’s Senate last spring, without the lieutenant governor playing a large role in the debate. The measure is now stuck in a House committee. With a Republican presidential primary in the background, a fierce attempt will be made to dislodge it when state lawmakers return to Atlanta in January.

If the House were to make any changes in the legislation — perhaps the addition of a nondiscrimination clause — the matter could return to the Senate.

But in a telephone interview, the lieutenant governor said he doesn’t expect that to happen. Cagle said his chamber had dealt with SB 129 in a “judicious” manner, and he considered the issue settled.

So how to explain last week’s moves? Cagle reminded me that he’s considered himself a social conservative throughout his 20-year Capitol career. He’s supported efforts to place the Ten Commandments in public spaces. He backed efforts to remove abortion coverage from state employee health insurance plans. This is, after all, the man who lured religious conservatives away from Ralph Reed in 2006 to become the first Republican lieutenant governor.

“I don’t always engage in those things in a public way,” he said. “A lot of times I engage with them in a private way to get an outcome that is conducive. This is not anything other than vintage Casey Cagle and what I’ve done for many years in public life.”

Cagle said he’s had conversations with Georgia High School Association officials to discuss the plight of that cross country runner and isn’t satisfied. He’ll ask a legislative oversight committee to look into it.

“I just fundamentally don’t believe that this issue of banning any kind of adornment on a headband — yet allowing a logo. We’re going to allow Nike or Adidas [logos] to be displayed, but not a verse?” Cagle asked.

The lieutenant governor also predicted that January will bring legislation to block Planned Parenthood from receiving state Medicaid funds. He pointed to allegations that Planned Parenthood has accepted cash for fetal tissue from abortions.

“There are many, many not-for-profit organizations that can provide the type of services women need without profiting on it,” Cagle said.

We stopped shortly after that. There was more to be asked, but Cagle was headed for Bainbridge, and his cellphone had already begun to break up.

But there are tea leaves to be read from the lieutenant governor’s effort to reassert his social conservative credentials. One reading is that Cagle and his strategists see U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — who has emphasized “religious liberty” issues — as the driving force in the GOP presidential storm headed Georgia’s way. (Cagle is — and remains — an early Jeb Bush supporter.)

A second reading is that the lieutenant governor sees Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is well-respected among conservative Christians, as a likely Republican rival for governor. Despite Kemp’s current problems with loose voting records.

But the best reading for Cagle’s move may be this: We’re in a period of deep disillusionment among grass-roots GOP voters, who see a vast gap between what is promised and what is delivered.

Likely, Georgia’s Republican base values the right to stay far away from gay marriage above any need to protect same-sex unions or prevent discrimination. If Georgia’s business community and LGBT forces win next year’s fight against SB 129, hard-core Republican primary voters will be even angrier.

The man on a high wire will need something to prove that he’s leaning toward their side.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.