The AJC's Greg Bluestein moderates a debate with all seven GOP candidates for governor.

Sparks fly at Georgia GOP debate for governor 

All seven Republican candidates for Georgia governor shared a stage for the first time Saturday in a forum that touched on the state’s hunt for Amazon, a surprisingly busy legislative session and the ongoing “religious liberty” debate. 

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the GOP frontrunner, was targeted with the bulk of attacks by rivals who painted him as a career politician who failed to effectively push conservative legislation. He bristled at those charges, accusing his critics of “grandstanding” while pointing to his record. 

Former state Sen. Hunter Hill, who is in second or third place in several polls, was also on the receiving end of several attacks critiquing his agenda. He touted his plan to eliminate the state income tax and slash state spending, calling himself the only “true conservative leader” in the race. 

Secretary of State Brian Kemp leaned on his populist blend of polices, pledging to “fundamentally reform” state government and crackdown on illegal immigration. He was largely unscathed throughout the event, as other opponents traded barbs with one another.  

Executive Clay Tippins, a first-time candidate, promised a data-driven approach to state government that would bring a business mentality to the Gold Dome. He also leveled some of the sharpest criticism at Cagle, accusing him of holding legislation ransom out of spite. Cagle denied the claim. 

State Sen. Michael Williams, running as a pro-Trump conservative, came out swinging throughout. He accused Cagle and other GOP leaders of mealy-mouthed policies and said his priorities, such as a push for police pay raises, were repeatedly blocked because he posed a threat to the establishment. 

Two other longshot candidates were also on stage. Former educator Marc Alan Urbach called his opponents “fake conservatives and liars.” And restaurateur Eddie Hayes described his last-minute decision to join the race and his religious faith. 

Watch the debate here and find some highlights below.

On Amazon:

Cagle was the most vocal GOP candidate in support of Georgia’s bid to lure Amazon’s second headquarters, which could generate up to 50,000 high-paying jobs. 

He said he was “excited about the opportunity” to lure the firm, whose executives scouted locations in Atlanta last week. But he also suggested a push for additional incentives in a special session would be a tough sell.

“I welcome Amazon to come to Georgia. If they want to come here for our low-tax environment, if they want to come here because of our cost of living that is low,” he said, ticking off a list of the state’s selling points. 

“Every single tax credit that is on the books right now – whether it’s a job tax credit or an investment tax credit – every single company gets to take the same advantage,” he said. “You treat everyone fairly, and what their total comes up to is what they’re entitled to. But it’s not sacrificing our values.” 

Williams took a divergent approach, saying he’s “leading the charge” against doling out extra tax breaks to the Seattle-based e-commerce giant. “I don’t think it’s right for government to pick winners and losers.” 

On legislative regrets: 

Cagle said he was disappointed over the demise of the Hidden Predator Act, which stalled out amid disagreements between the House and Senate. The measure would have given adults who were sexually abused as children more leeway to file lawsuits against their alleged abusers. 

Kemp seized on the failure to adopt stricter immigration crackdowns – “don’t worry,” he told the crowd, “I have a plan to track and immediately deport criminal illegal aliens” – while several others lamented the fate of other policies that got sidetracked in the session’s final days. 

On tax cuts:

Kemp repeated his pledge for a spending cap, while Cagle supported a “zero-based budgeting system” that would require agencies to justify their spending. He also said “making sure that able-bodied workers have the skills” to work would help cut poverty rates and boost tax revenue. 

Hill said he’d pay for his plan to eliminate the state income tax by slashing spending to social service programs such as “welfare, food stamps, the higher education bureaucracy, Medicaid reform.”

“The reason we do that is because we love people. The bottom line is the government is not delivering results in helping these broken people,” he said. 

Tippins outlined a series of spending cuts that included keeping vacant some positions held by retiring state employees and “leveling off” reserve fund savings. But he said Republicans should not make promises they cannot keep. 

“I would love zero percent income tax. All of us would. I just don’t know how those numbers work. I don’t know how those numbers work without having double-digit sales tax on milk, bread, eggs – things like that.”

Religious liberty:

Williams went on the offensive over the “religious liberty” measure that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in 2016. He and most of his adversaries signed a pledge to support the proposal if elected, but he accused Cagle and Hill of insufficiently embracing the idea.

“We need a candidate that’s not going to run from that issue,” he said.

In a rebuttal, Hill said he supported the measure even though many of the constituents in his Buckhead-based district didn’t want him to do so. 

“Liberals are attacking our country, and religious liberty is a foundational constitutional principle that has created prosperity in our country,” he said, “and we need to stand in the gap and deliver on that important issue.” 

Cagle had a fiery response, banging the podium for emphasis: 

“I get grandstanding because this is a political environment. It’s disappointing for individuals to stand up and question someone’s faith, someone who has a record on the issue of faith and fighting for faith-based organizations at every single term. I take that personal, because that’s not the man who I am.

“No one has to question or wonder where I’m going to be to ensure that our protections are there as it relates to our free exercise of religion.

“Look at my record on pro-life. Look at my record on every conservative issue. Don’t take the words of those that want to politicize something. Look at my record: It speaks for itself.” 

On bipartisanship: 

Asked about how they would work with Democrats if elected, most candidates said they’d work to find common ground over issues ranging from medical marijuana to tighter budget spending. Kemp took a different sort of tack. 

“As your governor, I am going to implement what I have told you tonight. That is more important to me than worrying about working across the aisle. Because the issues that I’m talking about – forget Democrats and Republicans, they are issues that Georgians want to see us do.” 

Democrats, he said, won’t vote against business-friendly legislation, a spending cap or “going after criminal illegal aliens” that are targeting children.

“And if they do,” he added, “we are going to be in the majority for a long time.” 

How they would describe themselves in one word: 

Cagle: “Leader.”

Hayes: “My belief.” (Yes, he gave two.) 

Hill: “Leadership” 

Kemp: “Record.”

Tippins: “Brevity.”

Urbach: “Statesman.”

Williams: “Fearless.” 


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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