Almost as soon as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle took the microphone at a lakefront event center, he launched into a spirited defense of President Donald Trump.
Across the state, Secretary of State Brian Kemp had much the same message about Trump, pledging to support the president’s policies with a promise to “put hardworking Georgians first.”
As the July 24 runoff nears, there’s a bigger battle going on in the GOP race for governor that doesn’t revolve around guns or immigration, but on another issue that could have an even greater pull on Republican voters: the depth of their loyalty to Trump.
For both GOP candidates for governor, this is a nervy topic. Neither Cagle nor Kemp was an early supporter of the president, and neither was particularly aggressive in his support of Trump during the 2016 nomination battle. Both were framed by rivals this year as squishy Trump supporters.
Now, though, they’ve both inextricably tied their campaigns to him. Both have defended his controversial immigration policy, pledged to “unapologetically” back him in the governor’s mansion and vowed to heed his call to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border.
They’ve dispatched surrogates to duel over how adamantly — and how early — they backed Trump. And their campaign promises on issues such as border security and criminal justice increasingly mirror the president’s policies.
They’ve got plenty of reasons to ratchet up their embrace of Trump. He enjoys sky-high approval ratings among the conservatives in Georgia who will decide the runoff. And tales of electoral backlash from Republicans in deep-red districts who criticized Trump haunt the party.
“The base sees the real success President Trump is having and want candidates down the ballot who will boldly support that success and not undermine” him, Cobb County GOP Chairman Jason Shepherd said. He added that conservatives are tired of “Republicans still stuck in the 2016 primary.”
For Democrats lining up behind Stacey Abrams, her party’s nominee for governor, the pro-Trump strategy is more than welcome. They hope to capitalize on his controversies, including his now-reversed policy of separating families that illegally cross the U.S. border, to energize liberals and woo moderates.
“It’s an uphill battle for Stacey, but anything can happen — especially with the guy in the White House being so flamboyant,” former Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland said. “These guys have run so hard to the right — but in the general (election) they’re going to face an entirely different electorate.”
For now, though, both GOP campaigns are putting no daylight between themselves and the president. And a primary election earlier this month in South Carolina was a sharp reminder of why.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, who had never lost a South Carolina election, was steamrolled by a first-term state legislator who pledged her allegiance to the president three times in her first TV ad. Trump didn’t help Sanford’s cause, sending an Election Day message that he is “better off in Argentina,” a reference to a Sanford scandal involving an extramarital affair.
In Georgia, any rift over Trump can be equally perilous. His approval ratings among Georgia Republicans are above 80 percent; Gallup polls show the only Republican president more popular with his party than Trump at this point in his first term was George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Kemp seemed to acknowledge the Trump pull from the get-go. His April 2017 announcement featured a “Georgia first” mantra that played off Trump’s slogan of “America first,” and his “stop and dismantle” initiative echoes Trump’s attacks on the MS-13 gang. Kemp’s first ad in the runoff, released last week, brands him a “hard-core Trump conservative.”
Cagle, meanwhile, has tried to more directly link himself with Trump as the vote nears. A telling example: Just hours after Trump met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to begin hashing out a potential nuclear disarmament treaty, Cagle declared him worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.
The lieutenant governor said in an interview that he wanted to highlight that “there’s a lot of similarities” between Trump’s accomplishments in Washington and recent tax cuts and economic gains in Georgia.
“It’s all part of a narrative,” he said.
Still, there’s a certain irony to the Republican race for Trump’s affections.
As the state’s top elections official, Kemp didn’t pick sides during the crowded presidential primary. And Cagle was an early supporter of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor whose campaign quickly fizzled out.
Both supported Trump after he was nominated, but they were excoriated by rivals for not being more vocal. Cagle was criticized for never sending out a press release announcing his support for Trump, while Kemp said he was slammed for never “formally” endorsing the president.
Some of their top supporters have rallied to their defense. Rayna Casey, who was the chairwoman of Trump’s Georgia campaign, said Cagle was “all in” after the primary and that he helped rally other Republicans to the president’s side. Kemp, she said, was “never a part of the Georgia Trump for president campaign.”
A trio of former Georgia Trump staffers responded by saying that Kemp was “laboring with us on the grass-roots level.” And Kemp said he stayed neutral during the process because he orchestrated the “SEC primary” — the bloc of mostly Southern states that held votes in tandem — and couldn’t appear biased.
At recent Cagle events, it’s hard to miss his shift in tone toward the president.
During a campaign swing last year in North Georgia, there was little mention of Trump in Cagle’s stump speeches. But in Toccoa over the weekend, he put Trump front and center.
“I don’t know if y’all feel the same way I do,” Cagle said shortly after taking the stage, “but it seems like if Donald Trump comes up with a cure for cancer, the media will still criticize him.”
The audience roared its agreement — the biggest applause of his short speech.