Secretary of State Brian Kemp might have earned a spot in the Republican runoff for governor without any of his attention-grabbing ads. After all, he had high name recognition, solid fundraising and a relentless attempt to out-conservative rivals.
But 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.”
He also had some help from Cagle, who decided in the late stages of the race he’d rather face Kemp than Hill – and focused his campaign’s machinery on attacking Hill’s record.
There were shadowy campaign mailers labeling Hill a “convenient conservative” that came of uncertain origin, but that Cagle soon echoed in campaign trail rhetoric. And Cagle seemed to catch Hill off-guard with direct attacks at debates about his plan to eliminate the state income tax.
Kemp, meanwhile, often sported a wide grin as the two traded barbs around him. But his world is about to heat up.
Cagle’s campaign figures he matches up more favorably against Kemp, who also has a long record in statewide office and a somewhat similar base of support. Neither can effectively claim to be a political outsider, unlike Hill – a military veteran who stepped down from the state Senate to wage his campaign.
Expect Kemp to paint Cagle as a squishy conservative beholden to “special interests.” That was his pitch on Tuesday night at his campaign party in an Athens hotel, when he said lobbyists showered him with millions of dollars.
“And still, the vast majorities of hardworking Georgians rejected Casey Cagle tonight and those who own him. Folks, he’s not a leader, he’s a puppet. And yeah, I just said that,” said Kemp. “He is not fighting for us, but he’s fighting for those that have the deep pockets and whose interests are not ours.”
Cagle had a more positive message on Tuesday, and he didn’t overtly attack Kemp. But he’s likely to frame Kemp as an incompetent manager who oversaw embarrassing data breaches and disclosures that tarred the secretary of state’s office.
Get ready for a long nine weeks.