Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, left, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp faced off Thursday as the two remaining Republicans in the race for Georgia governor. Curtis Compton/

Cagle recording, Kemp donations fuel Georgia GOP candidates’ debate

The secretly made recording of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle took center stage in Thursday’s televised debate with Secretary of State Brian Kemp, with both candidates trading jabs over the audio that has rocked the GOP runoff for governor.

Kemp used all three of his questions to Cagle to pummel him over the audio, secretly recorded by a former Republican candidate, and challenged him to disavow his remarks. In one barbed exchange, he said Cagle has “trashed conservative voters and he’s put campaigns and politics before policies.”

“They’re your words. You should own that. Be honest with people. This race is about trust, and can you really trust him?” Kemp said. “It’s clear you’ll put politics ahead of policy and campaign contributions, even if it’s potentially illegal.”

Cagle called the surreptitious recording “unfortunate” and trumpeted his work on education issues. And he pivoted to an attack on Kemp, accusing the secretary of state of taking illegal campaign contributions — he used the term “shakedown” — from people who want favorable treatment.

“The only person that has been trading anything for money is the secretary of state,” Cagle said, citing an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation that found Kemp took more than $325,000 from companies and individuals regulated by his office.

The debate, sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club, came at a pivotal time for Cagle, whose campaign has been jolted by the audio recorded by Clay Tippins during a private sit-down shortly after the primary.

In that meeting, Cagle told Tippins that he supported a private school tax credit expansion that he described as “bad public policy” to undercut another rival, and he lamented that the GOP race had turned into a fight over “who could be the craziest.”

Kemp’s campaign has tried to leverage the recording with calls for federal prosecutors to probe whether Cagle violated federal elections law. And he released a TV ad this week that says of Cagle’s boast in the recording: “If that’s not criminal, it should be.”

Cagle has swung back, and his allies have urged prosecutors to probe whether Kemp violated the law in taking campaign contributions that the lieutenant governor invoked throughout the debate.

“He’s done the one thing that every other secretary of state has refused to do: Take money from those that he regulates,” Cagle said.

‘No. 1 complaint’

There are signs that Kemp is gaining new traction with appeals to the conservative voters who make up the bulk of the runoff electorate. Though Cagle was the leading vote-getter in May, public and private polls show the contest between the two tightening.

Cagle is trying to maximize his enormous fundraising advantage. He’s raised more than $10.5 million — about twice as much as Kemp — and has flooded the airwaves with TV spots. His latest shows a fiery Cagle declaring, “the time for conservatives getting kicked around is over.”

And he’s criticized Kemp for accepting donations from supporters who work in industries that fall under his office’s oversight, including contributions from the owner of a massage clinic that faces at least four complaints of therapists groping women during massages.

“You are the secretary of state, and every other secretary of state in Georgia’s history has intervened to make sure people are held accountable and that actions are being taken,” Cagle said. “The No. 1 complaint to my office is about the secretary of state.”

The two have promised to cut taxes and tighten state spending, but their fiscal policies have been overshadowed by escalating campaign pledges involving guns, abortion and other social issues.

And in Thursday’s debate, they both tried to position themselves as the most aggressive champion of the Second Amendment, of “religious liberty” measures and of public safety policies.

Cagle defended his vow to “kill” a tax break for Delta Air Lines after the Atlanta-based company cut ties with the National Rifle Association, saying the company is “no worse off” than it was before the proposed jet-fuel tax break was defeated in the Legislature.

And both tried to position themselves as the most ardent defender of President Donald Trump. Cagle said he was recently at the White House to speak with Trump aides about his college preparatory programs. And Kemp said Trump would see him as a kindred spirit.

“He’s doing exactly what he told people he’d do in this campaign. He said he’d put Americans first, and I understand that because I’m running a campaign to put Georgians first,” Kemp said. “Is everything he’s doing perfect? That’s for the public to decide. But our economy is doing better than it has before.”

But the consensus on conservative policies soon gave way to sharpening clashes. Cagle criticized Kemp for his investment in an agriculture business that’s facing lawsuits over a struggling Kentucky plant. And he questioned how voters could elect someone who has done a “bad job” to fill Georgia’s top office.

Kemp compared Cagle to Pinnochio for his attacks — “your nose is growing again” — and time and again invoked the Tippins recording.

“You’re trying to deflect from your own words,” Kemp said, “and people aren’t buying your fake news.”

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