Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidates Casey Cagle, from left to right, listens to a rebuttal from Hunter Hill, as Brian Kemp, Clay Tippins, and Michael Williams look on during a debate, Thursday, May 17, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) The Associated Press.
Photo: The Associated Press.
Photo: The Associated Press.

Clay Tippins: A Navy SEAL’s outsider campaign runs aground 

Clay Tippins was an outsider candidate with out-of-the-box ideas that landed him a distant fourth-place finish.

While his GOP rivals in the race for governor focused on tried-and-true issues like gun rights and illegal immigration, the Capgemini executive went with an array of policy proposals that wouldn’t exactly be red meat on a typical primary voter’s plate. 

He emphasized his support for an expanded medical marijuana program, despite long-held concerns from GOP voters that it would lead to the decriminalization of the drug. 

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp emerged as the top finalists in Tuesday's election.

He talked of retooling state government, but not of mega-tax cuts, and pledged to significantly improve third-grade reading levels in a crowded GOP field that rarely featured debate over k-12 education. 

He was the only GOP candidate to refuse a pledge to sign the “religious liberty” measure, though he said he would likely support the bill anyways and accused his rivals of being weaselly by promising to sign a law they hadn’t yet seen. 

And he harped on the need to eliminate sex-trafficking – a meritorious idea, for sure, but one that isn’t exactly standard fare on the campaign trail. 

But that was the point of Tippins’ campaign – he ran as a true outsider who bucked conventional political norms. He entered the race with a no-frills event last year and at forums often looked viscerally uncomfortable – as if he couldn’t stand some of the people on stage with him.

(In one memorable moment, when given the chance to ask an opponent a question, he instead aimed it at the “people of Georgia.” The moderator interjected, telling him the rules dictated he must address a rival. He insisted on continuing, issuing a defiant: “I’m tired of the political games.”)

The former Navy SEAL – and he emphasized his military service at every turn – hoped to seize the same outsider aura that propelled David Perdue to a U.S. Senate win. He hired some Perdue veterans, including the adsmith who honed the senator’s jean-jacketed image.

But he lacked the former Fortune 500 chief executive’s famous last name, his political connections and his personal fortune. Tippins reported in financial disclosures a net worth of about $750,000; he loaned himself at least $450,000 to jump-start his campaign. 

He introduced himself to voters with a splashy Super Bowl Sunday ad that mocked both Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. But a later ad faced far more backlash: It cast ex-state Sen. Hunter Hill as a “Benedict Arnold” for briefly supporting raising the age limits to buy assault weapons.

At a debate just before the primary vote, Tippins stood by the TV attack. And as the election neared, he tried new ways to reach out to a distracted electorate. The most innovative: He held a “marathon” Facebook Live session that stretched from 8 p.m. on election eve through the primary itself.

Shortly before polls closed, the live-stream included his wife Lori, who spoke frankly about her husband’s decision to run a longshot campaign and why they focused so much of their messaging on medical marijuana and sex trafficking. They had no regrets.  

“We have poured everything into this race – we have put 110 percent of our hearts into this thing,” he said. “But some things are out of our control.” 


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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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