Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, left, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle are locked in a tight battle for the GOP nomination for governor, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll.

Georgia GOP race for governor hurtles toward a close finish

The Republican race for Georgia governor is hurtling toward a nail-biting finish, with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll showing the bitter contest between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp to be neck and neck.

The poll of likely voters in the July 24 Republican runoff showed Kemp with an edge of 44 percent to 41 percent over Cagle, a lead that’s within the margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. There’s still an opening for either candidate to emerge: The poll showed roughly 15 percent of GOP voters were still undecided.

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The tight race has upended what Cagle supporters hoped would be a coronation. He entered the contest last year as the clear front-runner and has built a tremendous financial advantage, raising more than $10.5 million in what’s already the most expensive race for governor in state history.

But Kemp has used a secretly made recording of Cagle to sow doubts among conservatives, trumpeting his opponent’s remarks that he supported an expansion of a private school tax credit that he described as “bad public policy” to prevent another rival from receiving outside support.

The poll, conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, suggested the recording has helped shape the race: Many voters said trust-related issues were the driving force behind their choice for governor.

Of Kemp’s supporters, roughly 15 percent said the main reason they’re backing him is because they see him as more trustworthy. About one-third say they’re voting for him because he shares their values.

Among them was Rudy Parker, a retiree from West Point and an early Cagle supporter who has shifted to Kemp as the runoff nears because of the broader “negative stuff” that’s made the lieutenant governor seem like a stuffy political insider to him.

“I don’t know, Kemp just seems like he’s more believable. He’s more down to earth,” Parker said. “And he appears to be a straight shooter. If someone asks him a question, he answers it. He’s not wishy-washy.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp emerged as the top finalists in Tuesday's election.

About one-fifth of Cagle’s supporters, meanwhile, said they will vote for him because he’s the “right choice” to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal. And 9 percent said they backed him over Kemp because he’s more likely to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.

That’s one reason Cagle won over Carmen Lyons, an 80-year-old retiree who said she’s impressed with Cagle’s TV ads targeting illegal immigration — and that she’s convinced he can keep the state’s top office in GOP hands.

“Democrats have made so many mistakes. My God, they have Nancy Pelosi. They have Chuck Schumer,” she said of the party’s leaders in the U.S. House and Senate. “They’re all incompetent and crazy.”

‘Your own words’

A bitter five-man contest from the start, the Republican race has become even more brutal as Cagle and Kemp escalate their attacks.

The two have well-defined fiscal policies involving new tax cuts and spending controls, and both have tried to outflank the other on conservative issues, including support for “religious liberty” measures, gun rights expansions and new abortion restrictions.

But the run-up to the vote has increasingly focused on a coarse back-and-forth between the two rivals over competence and trustworthiness.

Cagle has seized on an AJC investigation that found Kemp took more than $325,000 from companies and individuals regulated by his office and accused him of epic mismanagement for releasing the confidential voter information of millions of Georgians.

“He has failed to do his job,” Cagle said. “And if you fail to do your job, you cannot ask for a promotion to be the next governor of the state of Georgia.”

With less than two weeks from the vote, Kemp has played up the recording as an epic scandal. In the conversation, secretly recorded by former candidate Clay Tippins, Cagle acknowledged supporting a measure he called bad “a thousand different ways” and lamented the GOP race had turned into a fight over “who could be the craziest.”

“He talks like the tape doesn’t exist because somebody shouldn’t have taped him. Well, he shouldn’t have said those words if he didn’t mean them,” Kemp said. “And you can’t take back your own words. I have the truth on my side.”

Don Lowery, a 53-year-old database administrator from Marietta, has tried to digest all the infighting between the two Republicans. He’s settled on Cagle as his final pick.

“He doesn’t have as many spotty issues about his background. They’re both career politicians — it is what it is — but Casey has more experience,” Lowery said.

“And, quite frankly,” Lowery added, “I like the job Nathan Deal is doing, and quite frankly, I don’t mind an extension of that.”

‘Sick to death’

Both candidates have played up their loyalty to President Donald Trump, and he remains a prominent factor in the race.

About 21 percent of Republicans said their main reason for voting in the GOP race for governor is to support the candidate they view as the stronger ally to Trump. Voters who said they were most motivated by Trump were evenly split between Cagle and Kemp.

Dennis Coxwell, 66, said he saw Kemp as the candidate best able to represent the “entire Georgia,” drawing parallels to Trump’s promise to help “forgotten” voters who felt disenfranchised by U.S. politics.

“He has not allowed politics to corrupt him,” said Coxwell, who works in timber and land businesses in Warrenton. “Atlanta’s got to be taken care of, I understand that, but rural Georgia has lost a lot of influence in the Legislature. And we would do well to have a governor who supports our best interests.”

And Lyons, the Cagle supporter, said she searched for a candidate who would unapologetically stand with Trump.

“I’m sick to death of people not liking his policies because they hate him,” Lyons said. “I want someone on the state level who can support Trump and his policies. Governors can’t vote on this stuff, but they can change people’s attitudes.”

Over the final stretch, both candidates will step up their appeals to the small bloc of undecided voters who could sway the election. But for some, it’s already too late. The race is already the most expensive contest for governor in Georgia history, topping $33 million, and some are overwhelmed by the mudslinging between the two.

Ron Williams, a 74-year-old from Blue Ridge, has voted in every GOP primary and dutifully cast his ballot in May, supporting former state Sen. Hunter Hill. But this time around, he’s likely to stay on the sidelines.

His reason? He doesn’t like how Cagle takes credit for Deal’s accomplishments. And he thinks Kemp’s TV ads, including one showing him pointing a shotgun toward a young actor, are “horrendous.”

“I vote every time there’s a race, but I can’t take these negative ads,” Williams said. “It’s really a turnoff. Just tell us where you’re going to stand on the issue.”

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Staff writer Aaron Holmes contributed to this article.

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