From the get-go, state Sen. Michael Williams built his campaign for governor on two themes: An argument that he’s Donald Trump’s most ardent champion in Georgia, and a streak of audacious proposals meant to show he’s a “fearless conservative” and his opponents are phonies.
With his dismal showing Tuesday, the Cumming Republican showed again the limitations of an arch-conservative message that relies almost entirely on Trump. In last year’s 6th District special election, Republicans who most directly tied their message to Trump flamed out.
In the end, even as he drew national attention for a “deportation bus tour,” he was universally ignored by his GOP rivals – usually a surefire sign he’s not getting any traction. At some debates, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle wouldn’t even respond to Williams’ attacks.
His struggles started with his failure to raise significant cash to build name recognition and lack of any significant accomplishment in the Georgia Legislature. But the contest also exemplified how his rivals were able to neutralize the Trump factor.
Yes, they each conceded, Williams was the first state official to back Trump in late 2015. But they also embraced the president and talked about him on the campaign trail, pledging to support his policies while also largely staying focused on Georgia-centric issues.
Their allegiance had its limits. Only Williams supported Trump’s plan to open Georgia’s coast to offshore drilling. And while other candidates lamented Trump’s tweets or bruising rhetoric when asked what they regret about the president, Williams would say he wholeheartedly approves of all things Trump.
In the closing days of the race, Williams sharpened his attempts to paint his opponents as closeted Never Trumpers.
At an Atlanta Press Club debate, he mocked Secretary of State Brian Kemp for saying he supported Trump but was never asked to “formally” endorse him. And he tried to cast Cagle as an anti-Trump stooge, despite social media posts that showed the lieutenant governor praising the president.
But he found it harder to out-conservative his rivals, who were all intensifying their race to the right.
Late last year, he attracted national attention for raffling off a bump stock device after it was used in a mass shooting in Las Vegas. By March, the entire field was in a vicious battle for the NRA’s endorsement – and a seemingly daily test over the lengths they would go to expand Second Amendment rights.
In the end, even Williams’ “deportation bus tour” was one-upped by his opponents.
Days earlier, Kemp launched an ad featuring his pickup truck - “just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself.” But unlike Williams, who spent little cash on expensive TV advertising, Kemp put about $1 million behind his last spurt of broadcast and cable spots.
So while Williams’ bus tour was beset with demonstrators – and sidelined for a time by engine problems – Kemp rode his truck to a spot in the runoff.