The candidates for Georgia governor hit the roads, hopped on airplanes and unleashed a final volley of ads Monday on the eve of a primary vote that likely won’t settle what’s been a costly and grueling competition.
The five Republicans and two Democrats scrapping for their parties’ nominations fanned out across the state to make a final pitch in a race that’s featured escalating campaign promises — and ever-sharpening attacks at debates and over the airwaves — as both sides race to their parties’ flanks.
The race for the Democratic nomination, which pits former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams against ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans, will end Tuesday after a bitter race. But the victor is likely to have nine weeks to regroup while Republicans hash out their own nominee.
That’s because no Republican is expected to emerge Tuesday with the majority vote needed to avoid a July 24 runoff. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the GOP front-runner, said his campaign is already readying for a showdown against Secretary of State Brian Kemp or former state Sen. Hunter Hill.
“We’re very excited about where we are. We’re clearly in a very good position going into Election Day,” Cagle said at the start of an eight-stop fly-around. “And obviously we’re very prepared for a runoff and have already begun that process.”
The race has attracted more than $22 million in spending — more than half was spent on TV ads — and drawn national attention for provocative campaign ads, sweeping campaign promises and a sense of history: Evans would be Georgia’s first female governor, Abrams the nation’s first black female governor. One of them will be the first woman nominated for Georgia governor by a major party.
All seven are appealing to the narrow sliver of the electorate that votes in primaries.
The Republicans are trying to outdo each other with aggressive promises to cut taxes, cracking down on illegal immigration and expanding gun rights. Democrats, for the first time in decades, have largely abandoned centrist talk and embraced progressive policies, such as decriminalizing marijuana.
‘Huddle in the corner’
The last-minute flurry of activity on the Democratic side matches the overall campaign style. Abrams held a five-stop bus tour across west Georgia that was set to end with a get-out-the-vote rally in Atlanta. Evans held lower-key events at several diners in metro Atlanta.
The two have traded barbs over gun policies, HOPE scholarship stances and other issues that boil down to a central divide: Abrams calls herself an “unapologetic progressive” who stood up to Republicans; Evans said her opponent struck too many deals as the House minority leader that betrayed Democratic priorities.
Both Democrats have particularly focused on winning over black voters, the backbone of Georgia’s Democratic Party. They also tried to wage a war on voter apathy in the closing days of the race.
“There is a group of people that has just checked out because their feeling is it doesn’t matter what you say, people are not listening,” said Jason Hudgins, who leads a southwest Atlanta group that invited Evans to speak over the weekend.
Evans focused her closing pitch on the same message she used to open her campaign: She wants to reverse cuts to the HOPE scholarship pushed by Republicans in 2011 with Abrams’ help. That appeal, she said, will help persuade independent voters and suburbanites to return to the party’s fold.
“She would like to huddle in the corner with folks that already identify as Democrats,” Evans said of Abrams. “The math alone in that strategy doesn’t add up.”
Pushing back, Abrams says her HOPE negotiations helped stave off deeper cuts to the lottery-funded program. She touted her strategy of energizing the party’s base while reaching out to left-leaning voters, many of them minorities, who rarely vote.
“We are seeing turnout across the state, we’re seeing incredible excitement and I feel momentum,” she said. “I think that we’re on a path to victory, but we’re going to keep running as though we’re behind because that’s what you do until the results come in.”
The Republicans tried to use the last moments to rev up their voters — and squeeze out a few last attacks on their rivals.
Cagle and Kemp both started their days at opposite sides of an air hangar at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, where they traded barbs. Cagle, who has led the public polls, said he was “the only Republican who can win in November” and urged whoever ends up in a July 24 runoff to steer clear of “nasty” attacks.
“We’re the only candidate that has cast a very clear vision of substantive public policy issues versus gimmicks, hot air and false attacks,” Cagle said.
His rivals pounced on Cagle as hypocritical, pointing at attacks his campaign has leveled against Hill and Kemp throughout the campaign.
“Casey Cagle is going after everyone, and it shows he’s a desperate politician, quite honestly, that’s losing his almost quarter-century grasp of going to the Capitol to work every day,” Kemp said before he boarded a plane that took him to seven stops across the state.
Hill, meanwhile, spent part of his day at a phone bank with supporters who emphasized his pledge to eliminate the state income tax over seven years. His campaign claimed it had reached out to 800,000 Republicans since he got in the race last year.
Executive Clay Tippins, who is relying on outsider appeal, held stops in conservative strongholds in North Georgia. And state Sen. Michael Williams revved up his “deportation bus tour” after it was briefly sidelined last week because of engine problems.