Clay Tippins’ top rivals in the GOP race for governor are each trying to position themselves as outsiders. He’s trying to carve out an avenue as the only contender who can claim he’s never held a political office.
A relative unknown in Georgia politics, the former Navy SEAL and onetime standout swimmer plunged into the race late last year with no experience in public service and virtually no name recognition. Even longtime Republican activists had to research him when he first mused about running for the office.
But he’s made a quick splash in the May 22 race while trying to pull off a mix of military machoism and policy nerdery, with a dash of dramatics. He knows he’s fighting an uphill battle — an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows him struggling with about 4 percent of the vote — but he wants voters to know he’s waging it with zeal.
His campaign strategy tries to reflect that blend. He’s pumped iron in early-morning workouts with high school students and compared the hunt for sexual predators with the military strategy to combat the Islamic State. He’s caught media attention by staging marches to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s office.
And he’s charted a starkly different course than his rivals on some of the biggest policy divides.
He’s the only GOP contender to refuse to sign a pledge supporting a “religious liberty” bill. He’s bucked most of his rivals by backing an expanded medical marijuana program. And he says candidates who call for deep tax cuts — such as eliminating the income tax — are trying to sell pipe dreams.
The playing field is not exactly an even one. He’s overshadowed by rivals with higher name recognition and far more campaign cash. And he doesn’t have enough personal wealth to self-finance his campaign.
Yet he’s hoping to leverage his business acumen and lack of political experience as an advantage, much in the way David Perdue rode his outsider persona to a 2014 win in a U.S. Senate race.
And to draw out the comparison, he’s snapped up several of Perdue’s former operatives — as well as the adsmith who sharpened the senator’s jean-jacketed image — to help shape his message.
“What I think is needed more than anything else is an honest conversation about where we are and how we move our state forward in the right direction, not forked-tongue flip-flopping,” he said at a recent forum. “We’ve got to act now to get ready for our future.”
Growing up in Gwinnett County, Tippins suffered from so many bouts of pneumonia that his pediatrician told his parents they needed to strengthen his weak lungs. The solution was sticking him in the water, the first step in a swimming career that took him to a string of national championships at Stanford University.
He cemented his dream of becoming a Navy SEAL during a visit to Cuba in 1991 to swim in the Pan American Games, when a glance at the imposing cliffs led him to wonder whether he would have had the guts to mount the terrain in an assault.
After his military service, he joined a few Silicon Valley firms and eventually landed at Capgemini, a Paris-based consulting and outsourcing company. He rose through the ranks in its Atlanta office, ultimately becoming a top executive in the firm’s North American entertainment and telecom division.
That position has come under scrutiny. A lawsuit claims he was involved in a conspiracy to oust the head of a tech startup in exchange for an ownership stake in that company. Tippins said the complaint, filed shortly after he entered the race, was “dirty politics as usual.”
As the race for governor took shape, Tippins cast about for someone he hoped would be a more business-friendly alternative to Cagle. He jumped in the race himself when no one he sought to recruit would take the plunge.
On the campaign trail, he talks about boosting third-grade reading levels and using data-driven analysis to tackle problems such as disability fraud. The thousands of state workers set to retire over the next four years, he said, give the next governor a chance to reshape Georgia’s bureaucracy.
“History shows us that the future is unkind to those that don’t reinvest and reinvent themselves when they’re riding high,” he said, saying the state faces inefficient spending and literacy issues plaguing third-graders.
“This is a generational opportunity,” he said, “and, with a business mind-set, we can transform the state of Georgia.”
Strip clubs and traitors
His policy views defy conventional Georgia GOP strategy. Republicans often race to the party’s right flank, eager to scoop up support from conservatives who decide the primary vote, before taking steps toward the center in the general election.
Tippins, though, is trying to position himself as an acceptable choice for more moderate Republicans and independents — the bloc of voters that Georgia GOP leaders worry could be most alienated by hard-right proposals.
He focuses on nonpartisan issues he hopes will resonate with independent voters, such as cracking down on opioid addiction and sex predators. And he vowed to do “whatever it takes” to expand access to medical marijuana.
While polls show a broad majority of voters agree with that stance, it’s a more difficult sell among conservatives and law enforcement groups who worry it could lead to legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Tippins said he would not support that expansion.
He’s also lobbed sharp attacks as he tries to make up ground in the polls. He slammed Cagle for appearing at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a hotel that houses a strip club in its basement, and in an ad he depicted former state Sen. Hunter Hill — a military veteran — as notorious traitor Benedict Arnold.
“If Clay Tippins is talking about strip clubs and the Revolutionary War, it’s because he can’t talk about his record of working for a French company and outsourcing thousands of American jobs,” Cagle spokesman Brian Robinson said.
Tippins’ refusal to endorse a religious liberty measure, which has been criticized by corporate powers and civil rights groups as state-sanctioned discrimination, puts him at odds with his Republican rivals and elements of the party’s base.
A majority of activists in Georgia’s 14 congressional districts passed resolutions urging lawmakers to adopt such a bill, which they say is crucial to protect the faith-based from government intrusion. One group even “censured” Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016 after he vetoed a broad religious liberty measure.
Without specifics, Tippins accused his rivals of signing the pledge and then appealing to corporate heavyweights who vigorously opposed the measure with a “nod and a wink,” assuring them it won’t pass.
He hasn’t faced many sharp attacks over that stance — or any of his policy views. In fact, most of his rivals are aiming their fire at other contenders pulling ahead in the polls. Tippins doesn’t seem to mind being overlooked.
“I love that I’m told I am an underdog,” he said. “You want to motivate a SEAL? Tell them it’s not possible.”