Georgia’s 2018 governors race is about to heat up

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, left, and House Speaker David Ralston, right, are potential Republican candidates to replace the term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal when he leaves office in 2019. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, left, and House Speaker David Ralston, right, are potential Republican candidates to replace the term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal when he leaves office in 2019. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia’s race for governor is expected to formally kick off within weeks when the first round of candidates announce their campaigns, but the emerging contest is still shrouded in mystery.

Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Democratic House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams are all but guaranteed to enter the 2018 race, likely after the legislative session ends. They’ve lined up supporters, pitched to donors and signed up campaign staffers, and both seem to be the prospective front-runners in their primaries.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp signaled he would run, too, notifying supporters this week that he was in the race. Twice elected to statewide office, the Athens Republican has dropped hints for months that he would run as a business-minded conservative.

But Donald Trump’s victory, and the surge of Democratic energy that’s greeted his presidency, has shaken up the rest of the field to succeed a term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal.

Will an outsider businessman with no political experience emerge on the GOP side? Will Democrat Jason Carter reprise his 2014 challenge? And will other high-profile names — Sally Yates, David Ralston — join the race?

Those questions will be answered. And soon.

No free pass?

The last time Georgia had a wide-open gubernatorial contest, the 2010 vote to succeed Sonny Perdue, the campaign kicked off more than two years before the vote with John Oxendine filing paperwork to run in April 2008 and formally announcing months later.

But Trump’s election has rapidly changed the political calculus for the 2018 race, seemingly knocking out three potential contenders whose stars are soaring in Washington.

Perdue, who was rumbling about a run for months, is now Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, and his first cousin, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, is one of the president’s go-to lawmakers. Former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, who had laid the groundwork for a statewide campaign, is now in charge of Trump’s health policy.

That’s left Cagle in the pole position on the Republican side of the ticket. He’s soothed strained ties with powerful business boosters by backing off a push for “religious liberty” legislation. And he’s spent years building a fundraising base, traveling across the state meeting with grass-roots activists and cobbling together a formidable list of IOUs.

But he won't have a free pass. Kemp, a former state senator, has raised his political profile by railing against left-leaning groups that accused his office of voter suppression. He has yet to formally announce his candidacy, but an official with direct knowledge of his decision said he's definitely in the running.

Kemp’s advisers are already drawing a line between Cagle and Oxendine, who led many of the early polls but finished in fourth place in the crowded GOP primary.

“It’s very similar to Oxendine in the sense that he’ll have an early fundraising advantage from Capitol special interests and insiders that rely on him and will have name ID,” said Jeremy Brand, a political consultant with ties to Kemp. “But it won’t last when the spotlight shines. It won’t expand, and it will all fall apart.”

Cagle’s supporters declined to comment, saying he’s focused on the frenzied final weeks of the legislative session.

Kemp surely won’t be the only high-profile Republican joining the race. Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston is openly considering a run, and he’s kept a high profile by taking the daunting task of leading fundraising for the financially struggling Georgia GOP and working in a part-time role as a CNN contributor.

Another former U.S. House member, Lynn Westmoreland, is also buzzing about a run for governor, telling reporters he questions whether he has the "fire in the belly" for a run.

“Until Lynn Westmoreland makes an announcement publicly one way or another, the options are always open,” said Chip Lake, a Westmoreland strategist.

‘Always room for an outsider’

Ralston, the Republican House speaker from Blue Ridge with a formidable fundraising base, has also mused about a run and recently met with Westmoreland. He’s hinted that if he ran, he would focus on rural issues, leveraging his message on Trump’s wave of support among voters outside urban and suburban pockets.

“I think they’ll be looking for someone who has a vision, such as a Zell Miller with the HOPE scholarship,” Ralston said, “or Nathan Deal with economic development and criminal justice reform.”

Several GOP state senators could add another dose of intrigue to the race. State Sen. Michael Williams, a millionaire businessman from Cumming, has repeatedly hinted he is preparing a 2018 bid for governor. The first state elected official to endorse Trump, his campaign would likely borrow many of the president's outsider themes.

Another possible candidate is state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who has become a hero among some religious conservatives — and a bitter enemy of Democrats, business boosters and much of the state's GOP leadership. He's spent years crisscrossing the state to champion religious liberty legislation and has already announced he won't seek another Senate term.

“I’m not taking anything off the table,” said McKoon, who could also run for attorney general or lieutenant governor. “I will continue to travel the state, and I’ll make a decision that makes sense. I’m not going to rush my decision because of something that someone else does.”

Then there’s the increasing likelihood that a wealthy businessman and newcomer to politics could jump in the race, inspired by the success of Trump and David Perdue, whose first election to public office was his 2014 U.S. Senate win.

“In today’s political environment, there’s always room for an outsider. That doesn’t mean that person is going to be easy to find,” Lake said. “Give credit where credit is due: Very few outsiders have been able to accomplish what Donald Trump and David Perdue did.”

‘Always campaigning’

The other side of the ticket is just as uncertain, though Democrats are united in hopes that frustration with Trump can help them retake the Governor's Mansion for the first time since 2002.

Abrams has long been a national fundraising darling, and she cemented her status as a rising Democratic star with a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. She's kept a more subdued profile in the Legislature this year, fending off a challenge for her leadership slot and pushing "kinship care" legislation to help family caregivers of children.

Outside the statehouse, though, she’s emerged as a Georgia face of the opposition to Trump. At town hall meetings crowded with frustrated Democrats, she’s urged a new wave of first-time politicians to seek public office and vote in every contest.

“We have to know that every year is an election year, and we are always campaigning,” Abrams said at one packed meeting earlier this year. “There are 160 municipal elections this year, and they are a chance to stand up and show who we are.”

The biggest unknown is whether she’ll have a clear path to the Democratic nomination, much like Carter had in 2014, or the state will see a replay of the bruising primary battles of the 2006 and 2010 elections.

Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, hasn’t yet ruled out a comeback. And he’s telegraphed a campaign that would reach out to moderates and Republicans disenchanted with Trump.

"Some people in the party are going to give up on the Trump voters and say we're going to go with people who already agree with us. That to me is a recipe for division," Carter said in a recent address. "Or we will say there's a real opportunity for people to come together, to create a lot of room in the middle."

But the Democrats could have their own newcomer step forward. Several influential Democratic operatives and politicians are trying to recruit former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, who became a hero to the left when she refused to enforce Trump’s immigration policy.

Among them is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who told an interviewer that Yates would be a dream candidate.

“I think my state is going to look better and better,” said Reed, who has ruled out his own run. “I am thrilled about Sally Yates’ seeming embrace of becoming more and more involved in politics.”