A front-runner again, Cagle hits the campaign trail

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle campaigns at The Wagon Wheel in Dahlonega in his bid for the Republican nomination for governor.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle campaigns at The Wagon Wheel in Dahlonega in his bid for the Republican nomination for governor.

The breakfast crowd is rolling into The Wagon Wheel, where Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is busy tuning up his campaign for governor.

He’s backslapping supporters, greeting old friends — “the best-looking man in all of Lumpkin County,” he razzes a retiree — and generally trying to present the image of an affable front-runner in a crowded field.

“When you are the lead person, you have to pedal a lot faster than everyone else,” said Cagle, an avid cyclist. “Because they’re all chasing us.”

Cagle has been plotting a run for governor for about a decade. It has showed in the early days of his campaign: He unveiled a detailed and noncontroversial campaign agenda of lower taxes and more jobs, dominated early fundraising and locked up a trove of endorsements.

And yet, he hasn’t managed to scare off a crowded field of rivals that seems poised to grow, nor has he locked up support from some of the bigger names in Georgia’s Republican orbit who are sitting on the sidelines.

Still, he’s acting a lot like a presumptive GOP nominee would. He’s hired a team of operatives. He’s trying to sidestep battles that could give his Republican rivals an opening. And this week, he embarked on a bus tour across North Georgia to drum up support.

At stop after stop, in small community centers along windy mountainous roads, he positions himself as a champion of the have-nots. He makes a point to talk about economic inequality — “think about this,” he tells each crowd, “25 percent of our kids are living in poverty” — and largely steers clear of divisive talk.

Strikingly, there’s little mention of President Donald Trump in his stump speeches across the territory, deep-red stretches that the Republican carried by whopping margins. Cagle supports Trump, but he hasn’t tethered the president to his campaign as directly as his rivals.

And he’s quick to nod to one of his biggest vulnerabilities — his long electoral record. First elected to the Senate in 1994 at the age of 28 — he defeated the incumbent Democrat in an upset — he’s spent nearly half his life in public office and the past 11 years as one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the state.

“I am not an established candidate because an established candidate goes along to get along,” he tells a conservative group in Clarkesville. “And I’m not that.”

A front-runner, again

Cagle has been in the catbird's seat before. After defeating Ralph Reed for the state's No. 2 job in 2006, Cagle made it an open secret that he had his eye on the governor's office. He filed paperwork in 2008 to replace a term-limited Sonny Perdue two years later, led in early polls and raked in campaign cash.

His surprising announcement in April 2009 that he was abandoning the contest upended the race. Suddenly, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine became the de-facto front-runner — and the vacancy gave then-U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, also a Republican from Gainesville, an opening to launch a campaign.

Cagle was easily re-elected as lieutenant governor, later reasserting some of his powers over the state Senate while making his higher education initiative, called the College and Career Academy, his leading priority. The program combines college courses with tech school training, and there are now 42 of the academies across the state.

The 51-year-old unveiled his campaign in April with a pledge to cut $100 million in taxes, a promise to create 500,000 jobs in his first term and a pledge to support massive new infrastructure spending. The quick fix of the collapsed I-85 bridge soon crept into his speeches as an homage to the virtues of cutting red tape.

Facing three Republican officials tacking to his right — Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state Sens. Hunter Hill and Michael Williams — Cagle has sought to court big business boosters that fund GOP campaigns while trying not to alienate social conservatives who could cost him a primary victory.

There's not much wiggle room. After Deal vetoed a controversial "religious liberty" bill — a proposal beloved by many activists but abhorred by major business groups — Cagle warned of the "silent majority" clamoring for the legislation.

Then, as he prepared to run for higher office, he said he hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would settle the issue — the justices are set to soon take it up — and did not make it a priority during this year's legislative session.

A week ago, he reverted to his initial stance, pledging that he would sign a version of the legislation if the Legislature passed it, spurred by public pronouncements from his rivals that they would unequivocally back it.

He’s had an earful from the bill’s opponents — the Metro Atlanta Chamber remains steadfastly against the legislation — but his supporters said he had little choice but to avoid a policy rift that could have crippled him in the primary.

The stakes are high: Republicans have held the seat since 2002, when Perdue scored a stunning upset against incumbent Roy Barnes, and the GOP is the early odds-on favorite to hold the seat. Democrats are locked in their own deepening fight that’s threatening their wobbly coalition.

Cagle notched an early lead in the fight for funding, raising about $2.7 million in cash, but his three rivals all raised or loaned themselves at least $1 million. Each is trying to carve out his own unassailable niche.

Kemp has honed his Trump-like “putting Georgians first” message across the state, barreling in on rural counties where the president thrived, and Hill has had early success at grass-roots events and straw polls.

Williams, a low-profile lawmaker also running as a Trump loyalist, hosts flashy events — among them, a dinner with reality TV figure Dog the Bounty Hunter — and peppers his stump speeches with attacks on Cagle and Atlanta’s political culture.

Other potential candidates are also eyeing the race, including Clay Tippins, a tech executive and former Navy SEAL who would run as an unabashed outsider. Most of Georgia’s top GOP brass, including Deal and U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, are not publicly choosing sides yet.

Dr. Plumber

Voters seem just as unsettled. Interviews with more than a dozen North Georgia conservatives this week showed many were waiting until closer to next year’s election to make up their mind.

Richard Ward, a military veteran in Dahlonega, isn’t quite sure what to make of the GOP field. He said he was once open to voting for Democrats, but he’s so turned off by the “hoopla spread by the progressive movement” that Cagle is an option for him.

“The Democrats have gone so far to the left that they lost my vote forever,” he said. “Period.”

Greg and Terri Thrower, who recently moved to Blairsville to retire and work on a book, are somewhat split on Cagle after his talk at a community center. Greg said he was drawn to Cagle’s “humility” and is likely to vote for him. His wife, Terri, a Bernie Sanders supporter fed up with the fraught political environment, is just looking for solutions.

“I’m at least willing to listen to him,” she said.

And Cagle is willing to talk. In Cleveland, he gets applause for vowing state solutions for the “unsustainable” Affordable Care Act after Congress failed to repeal it. In Clarkesville, he asks the audience to imagine fewer inmates in the local jail because of better-paying jobs. In Blairsville, he talks of better roads and infrastructure.

And at each stop, he dives into the same standby tale.

It’s the one about the doctor who has a problem with his pipes and calls a plumber to fix it. When the plumber charges him $500 for less than an hour of work, the doctor is astounded. He tells the plumber he doesn’t even charge that much — and he saves lives. Came the response: “When I was a doctor, I didn’t make that much either.”

The moral, Cagle adds, is one he will repeat over the long haul.

“Is the plumber more important than the doctor? No,” he said. “All work that’s honest work is good work.”

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