The race for Georgia governor reaches a climax Tuesday when voters decide contests between two Democratic women striving to redefine their party’s philosophy and five GOP rivals dueling each other over their conservative chops.
The seven candidates combined have raised more than $22 million and spent much of it in the final stretch, which has featured an escalating series of attention-grabbing ads, soaring campaign promises and toughening talk.
In the past week alone, one GOP candidate launched a “deportation bus tour” and another pledged to send soldiers to the Mexican border, while Democrats traded barbs over their commitment to the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship and their progressive bona fides.
All seven are racing for their party’s flanks. The Republicans are trying to outdo each other with aggressive promises on a blend of tried-and-true conservative issues, such as cutting taxes, cracking down on illegal immigration and expanding gun rights.
And the Democratic contenders, for the first time in decades, are following a similar tack. They’ve largely abandoned centrist talk to appeal instead to left-leaning voters with a promise of implementing gun control, increasing financial aid for lower-income families and taking steps toward the decriminalization of marijuana.
For all the money and attention, the race remains unsettled. Polls show Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle leading the GOP contest but still falling short of the majority vote he needs to avoid a runoff. The duel for second-place remains tight, with four candidates trying to present themselves as a more conservative — and “outsider” — alternative.
The Democratic race is volatile, too. Stacey Abrams, the former House minority leader, has attracted widespread attention with her “unapologetic progressive” platform to become the nation’s first black female governor. But Stacey Evans, an ex-state legislator, casts herself as the more ardent liberal who refused to work with Republicans on big-ticket deals.
Despite the hype around both contests, turnout is expected to be tepid. Early-voting numbers are far down from the 2016 primary election, when turnout was stoked by a presidential race. And candidates have battled apathy for months.
“You don’t hear much about the election, and I haven’t seen much action one way or another. I’m not too worried, though,” said Roy Roberts, a retiree in Monroe who is a Republican. “All I want to do is beat the Democrats.”
‘Tired of losing’
This is not a typical Georgia primary debate. While GOP candidates have long raced to the right, the only two Republicans elected governor this century were former Democrats who had to defend the more moderate streaks in their pasts.
Not so this year, when all five candidates are lifelong Republicans testing their party’s limits with increasingly hard-line stances on gun rights, abortion, illegal immigration and other social legislation they hope will energize conservative voters.
The GOP contenders have sparred over how vigorously they’ll back a “religious liberty” measure like the one Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed, their loyalty to President Donald Trump and the extent of their pledges to promote gun rights.
Across the ballot, a generation of centrist Democratic candidates has given way to a pronounced shift to the party’s left. Abrams and Evans have both staked positions on gun control, criminal justice and economic policy that other state Democrats avoided just four years ago.
The Democratic victor would also chart a new course for the party’s philosophy. Evans promises to re-engage with disaffected moderates who once backed Democratic candidates; Abrams wants to energize hundreds of thousands of left-leaning minorities who don’t typically vote in midterm elections.
“Democrats are tired of losing, and there’s a strategy that’s tried again and again of trying to court Republican voters in order to win,” Abrams said. “They’re ignoring the fact that Democrats hear you, too.”
A GOP race for No. 2?
Each week in the Republican race brings a new effort by the candidates to outdo each other in hopes of wooing the sliver of the electorate that will decide the party’s nominee.
In the past week alone, Cagle abruptly announced he would send Georgia National Guard troops to the U.S. Mexico border – a month after Trump called for help.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp trumpeted an ad boasting he’d “round up criminal illegals” in his own pickup truck. And state Sen. Michael Williams embarked on a “deportation tour” with a gray-clad bus advertising that rapists and child molesters headed for Mexico were on board.
Kemp, who angles for the same rural vote that powered Trump’s victory in Georgia, has focused his final pitch on three red-meat issues: He brandished a shotgun in an ad, he called for new crackdowns on illegal immigration and he proposed a tough-on-crime initiative aimed at gangs.
The polls show his top rival for the second spot may be former state Sen. Hunter Hill, a military veteran who is trying to make his case for governor an economic one. He’s vowed to eliminate the state income tax over seven years and make deep cuts to the state budget.
The other candidates are hoping to gain ground late. Clay Tippins, an executive for a consulting firm, is emphasizing a host of issues that rarely get much attention in political races. He wants to boost third-grade reading, crack down on sex trafficking and expand the state’s medical marijuana program.
And Williams has relentlessly tried to outflank his opponents on issues such as tougher restrictions on abortion, tax breaks and gun rights. His “deportation bus tour” attracted plenty of media attention — and dozens of demonstrators at its stops.
Though Cagle is in a commanding position, thanks in part to high name recognition and robust fundraising, attacks from rivals who paint him as a career politician may be taking a toll. His poll numbers haven’t crested the low 40s despite a multimillion-dollar ad blitz.
That may explain his changing tactics in the closing days of the race. Though he’s resisted calls to push for new abortion restrictions and eliminate all tax breaks, he’s showered Trump with more praise and tried to shore up his pro-gun credentials as Tuesday’s vote nears.
‘Breaks my heart’
The Democratic race features a sweep of shared values — and a deep rift over policy.
Both candidates support expanding Medicaid, oppose “religious liberty” proposals and back new criminal justice initiatives. They also advocate for new restrictions on firearms, hiking the minimum wage and boosting tax credits that would help lower-income families.
And both would make history: Evans would be the first female governor in Georgia history. Abrams would be the first black female governor in the U.S.
They’ve clashed on other issues, including how vigorously they would fight the National Rifle Association, manage the state’s $26 billion budget and pave the way to casino gambling, and even how they would address Stone Mountain and other Civil War monuments. The biggest divide, however, may involve higher education.
Evans has staked her campaign on bolstering the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, which helped her attend the University of Georgia. She said Abrams betrayed her party when she was the Georgia House Democratic leader by working with Republicans in 2011 to cut the program’s awards.
“It breaks my heart,” Evans said, adding: “It’s a tragedy and I’m committed to my core to righting that wrong for kids all across the state.”
It’s a message she’s repeated at every debate and every campaign stop, and Abrams has pushed back hard. She said more “seasoned members” of the Democratic Party sided with her in that 2011 vote because they “knew that the only answer was to go to the table and get good things done” or risk harsher repercussions from the GOP.
Early-voting totals among Democrats are up from the same time in 2014, and the party hopes to channel the energy toward retaking the state’s top office for the first time since 2002.
“We have an opportunity, a moment,” said Michelle Putnam, an Atlanta Democrat who works in the health care industry. “And we’re trying to capture it.”