Georgia 2018: Stump speeches and the shape of the GOP race for governor

The Fourth of July and the hot days that follow are where stump speeches — the memorized spiel that can be trotted out at the whisper of an invitation — are hammered, rewritten and otherwise forged into the shape of a candidate.

Or at least, the shape that the candidate would have you see.

Since the Republican climb to power 15 years ago, the Independence Day celebration hosted by the Cobb County GOP has been the place where such speeches are born — but in modern, air-conditioned splendor. The event did not disappoint on Tuesday.

Over 23 minutes, three of four Republican candidates for governor began to flesh out a contest that’s only 10 months away — and is very much in play. Major themes very quickly emerged.

Experience in government will be a blessing or a curse. Metro Atlanta will be something to be won over, or something to run against. The state Capitol is a place for (always reluctant) public service, or a manure-filled Augean stable in need of a good cleaning.

And finally: Like him or not, President Donald Trump will be a force in the race for governor.

Casey Cagle, with his wife Anita by his side, was called first and set the tone. Cagle has been lieutenant governor since 2007, and had been a state senator for 12 years before that.

Cagle, 51, has a message honed for Republican suburbanites and commuting independents. “Sadly enough, our infrastructure was built for about half the size of the population that it is today,” the lieutenant governor said. “We’ve got to be focused and committed with a 10-year strategic plan, willing to go under, willing to go over, willing to go around – whatever’s required.”

His stump speech had a general-election lilt – a subtle argument that state Rep. Stacey Evans, one of two Democrats in the contest, has a blue-collar life story that might need to be countered next November.

“I attended eight different elementary schools by the time I reached the sixth grade. And I’ll tell you, a lot of those years were spent in a trailer,” Cagle said.

Experience is Cagle’s double-edged sword. “I’ve seen the governorship up close and personal. And I know what it’s like to make the tough decisions dealing with public policy,” he said. “More importantly, I know how to sit down with a CEO and convince them to bring their company and business here in Georgia.”

Brian Kemp was next. He’s been secretary of state since 2010, and was first elected to the state Senate in 2002.

He honed in on that CEO reference from Cagle. “I’m not worried about how big business is doing. They’re doing just fine. Let me tell you who needs help in today’s world — that’s our working Georgians, and our small business people,” said Kemp, 53.

“If you’re in Atlanta, everywhere you go, you’re seeing cones and cranes,” Kemp said. In rural Georgia — not so much. “You can’t get on the Internet. You can’t find better jobs. Those people do not have the same opportunities as many of us in the metro areas have,” Kemp said.

One topic that received virtually no mention at the Cobb GOP gathering was the Washington debate over health care, and Republican efforts to root out Obamacare. The topic is an important one for rural Georgia. The lack of access to hospitals and physicians is a death sentence in terms of economic development.

Kemp addressed the issue only in passing, and in the context of illegal immigration. “People are sick and tired of seeing people that are here illegally getting free health care, and you — our own people — are getting priced out of the system,” he said.

State Sen. Hunter Hill, who lives in the greater Vinings area, was scheduled next, but he was on the Georgia coast. A surrogate spoke for him, and we’ll have more on his campaign in a bit.

The last candidate for governor to speak was Michael Williams, a 43-year-old Forsyth County businessman who was first elected to the state Senate in 2014. Williams counts himself the first state lawmaker from Georgia to endorse Trump during the presidential campaign last year.

Williams has picked up some of the president’s rhetorical flourishes. “Our forefathers were inspired to create this country on Judeo-Christian values and principles, and we can never, ever, ever, ever forget that,” he began. (Remember: Before there was forever, there was three-ever.)

At a speech before the state GOP convention last month, Williams raised eyebrows when he asserted that certain unnamed persons had offered him the chairmanship of the Senate appropriations committee if he would make himself scarce in the governor’s race.

He has offered no evidence since, and presented a tamer version of Capitol corruption on Tuesday. “We have to fight that process. That’s what I’m all about. That’s what I want to do, is go down there, take the lobbyists out, take the special interests out, put you the people back at the center,” Williams said.

Again, Williams held out no specifics. But the crowd was edging toward the exit, and so he closed with this: “If you like what Donald Trump is doing in D.C., you’re going to love what I’m going to do in Atlanta.”

A station at the exit allowed for a straw poll. It was won by Hill, the fellow who wasn’t there, with 40 percent of 255 ballots cast. So I called him on Wednesday.

Hill is a reminder that the word “outsider” has many permutations. One need not have a deep business resume to qualify. At 40, Hill is the youngest of the four candidates, and the only one with significant military experience.

“I’m a lifelong Cobb countian, other than my term of service at West Point, five years of active duty with the 101st Airborne Division — and then I did another tour in Afghanistan, ’07 to ’08,” the two-term senator said.

I asked Hill if favorite-son status applied in that straw poll. “I think that plays into it,” he conceded. “I do think that it’s mostly because we’re a Christian constitutional conservative, and that is the base of our party.”

What that straw poll of GOP activists also says: This will be a very fluid contest for months to come.

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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.