Georgia 2018: Pro-Trump loyalist Michael Williams enters governor race

State Sen. Michael Williams. (Williams campaign photo.)

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

State Sen. Michael Williams. (Williams campaign photo.)

Republican Michael Williams entered the race for governor on Thursday, pinning his campaign on his outspoken support for Donald Trump as he hopes the same anti-establishment wave that elected the president propels him to Georgia's highest office.

Williams, a two-term state senator, has signaled for months he would join the crowded field to replace a term-limited Nathan Deal. And he has already attacked GOP rivals he deems not sufficiently pro-Trump as "disingenuous."

“People want someone willing to take a stand for what they believe, someone who will relentlessly pursue fearless conservative reform,” he said in his announcement. “If you want more politics as usual, vote for my opponents. If you want fearless conservative reform, vote for Michael Williams.”

A businessman who once owned a chain of Sport Clips barber shops, Williams indicated last year he would run for secretary of state. But energized by Trump’s victory, he hinted repeatedly that he would aim for the state’s highest job instead.

His public flirtation with a run for governor has included a robo-call to more than 400,000 conservative households that included his personal cell phone number and help from reality TV star "Dog the Bounty Hunter."

He enters the race as a decided underdog. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp both have higher name recognition, and fellow state Sen. Hunter Hill hopes to peel off conservative voters with a message focused on school choice.

Williams faces much competition in the pro-Trump lane. Kemp has traveled the state with a “Georgia First” message and a pledge to crackdown on illegal immigration. And Nick Ayers, a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, could shake up the race anew if he jumps in.

Democrats, meanwhile, salivate at the chance to run in a general election against a Trump loyalist. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and state Rep. Stacey Evans, who both filed paperwork to run, are hopeful that anti-Trump sentiment helps boost their campaigns.

A father of four, Williams sold his barber shops in 2013 to run for political office, telling voters he was so infuriated by Obamacare that he decided to run for the state Legislature.

He self-financed that campaign with $300,000 of his own cash and it paid off: He ousted incumbent Jack Murphy in a 2014 GOP runoff to represent a deeply-conservative territory that spans most of Forsyth County.

In the Georgia Senate, he’s cut a relatively low profile. He has no committee chairmanships or sweeping legislative accomplishments. His supporters say that fits with his outsider mantra.

But outside the chamber, he has tried to capitalize on his 2015 decision to endorse Trump – a move that made him the first state elected official to back the future president. It’s a fact that Williams and his campaign have highlighted at every turn.

"I've never been so excited about the future of this country," Williams said in the robo-call. "As the first Georgia elected official to endorse Donald Trump, I'm proud of the incredible work he's done so far."

Another sign of his pro-Trump loyalties: He hired Seth Weathers, who briefly led Trump’s Georgia campaign operation, as his chief strategist.

In his announcement, Williams said he would use a “significant sum” of his personal fortune in his gubernatorial run. And he criticized Republicans for failing to pass “basic conservative legislation” – such as school choice and deeper tax cuts – despite controlling the statehouse for over a decade.

“The gamesmanship of ‘election-year conservatives’ will end under Governor Williams,” read his announcement. “More results, less talk. No excuses!”

Read more on MyAJC: How Trump is shaking up the governor’s race

And: Georgia governor race: Who is running in 2018