Georgia GOP seeks unity while battle between Cagle and Kemp roars on

The two competitors in Georgia’s GOP runoff for governor, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, left, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, have pledged to participate in a unity rally after the nominee has been selected in Tuesday’s vote.
The two competitors in Georgia’s GOP runoff for governor, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, left, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, have pledged to participate in a unity rally after the nominee has been selected in Tuesday’s vote.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp pledged Friday to unite to support whoever wins next week’s GOP runoff at a rally after the vote. Until then, though, there’s no sign of any letup in the venomous battle between the two Republicans competing for governor.

The two tangled bitterly for another day on the campaign trail over who will best champion conservative values and defend President Donald Trump’s policies. And they both warred over who could defeat Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, in November.

The latest clashes undercut the Georgia GOP’s attempt to shift the focus to Abrams, who won her May primary by an overwhelming margin. And they led to new calls from Republican officials for the candidates to tone down the rhetoric in the final stretch of the race.

"As bitter as this election has become, I'm hopeful it doesn't divide us so much that we can't regroup to beat a formidable Democrat in the fall," said state Rep. Allen Peake, who pleaded Friday to fellow Republicans to "not forget the endgame" in November.

Cagle has upped his attacks as he’s faced a chain of setbacks that have transformed him from a presumptive front-runner with a huge stash of campaign cash to a clear underdog trumpeting a media outlet’s poll that showed him trailing his opponent by single digits.

The biggest blow to his campaign, though, was President Donald Trump’s surprise endorsement of Kemp, which triggered another wave of GOP officials to back the secretary of state. Among them is Vice President Mike Pence, who is flying Saturday to Macon to rally with Kemp.

The Georgia GOP is trying to step in the chasm. The party’s chairman, John Watson, arranged an event for two days after the runoff with Cagle, Kemp and a cast of other Republican leaders to present a united front against Abrams.

"While our candidates continue to seek the Republican nomination, Stacey Abrams is on the war path to make our state as liberal as California and New York. We can't let that happen," the note stated. "No matter who our Republican nominee is for governor, we must rally together as a united force."

That doesn’t line up with the politicking during the race’s final stretch. At campaign stops across the state this week, Cagle said Kemp would undoubtedly lose to Abrams in November. To drive the point home, his campaign sent a press release with a blaring headline: “Kemp can’t beat Abrams.”

And Cagle’s campaign stood by its argument despite pressure from GOP officials to walk it back.

“We’re focused on Tuesday, not Thursday. This isn’t a matter of opinion. Polls have consistently shown that Casey is the only Republican who beats Stacey Abrams,” Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley said. “Republicans need to consider that. It’s hugely important.”

Kemp hasn’t softened his tone, either. He said this week that Cagle’s campaign was “stuck in park” and that his opponent’s only remaining option was to try to “personally destroy” him. As for winning the general election, he indicated he’d portray himself as the heir to the legacies of both Gov. Nathan Deal and former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

“And like Nathan Deal built off what Sonny Perdue did for eight years,” Kemp said, “I’m planning to do the same thing.”

Georgia Democrats are readying for attention to swing back toward them after the bruising GOP race is over.

The party held its unity rally months ago, shortly after Abrams trounced her runoff rival, former state Rep. Stacey Evans, to win the nomination. Within minutes of conceding the race, Evans endorsed Abrams and has been touting her campaign.

Abrams has emphasized "solvable problems" such as boosting public school funding and expanding Medicaid rather than more polarizing policies. At the Democratic National Committee's "IWillVote" gala Thursday, she received a hero's welcome for her aim to energize left-leaning voters.

“Winning takes boots on the ground, voices on the phone, texting our friends about this election like our lives depend on it,” she said. “And we’ve got to begin running for November today. There is no September, there is no October – there is only now.”

2018 campaign

It's a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republicans Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp, and Democrat Stacey Abrams. We've looked at Cagle's connections to lobbyists, Kemp's fundraising among industries he regulates and Abrams' tax difficulties. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com as the state approaches the next political milepost, Tuesday's Republican runoff for governor.