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Georgia Republicans give nod to Kemp in governor’s race

Secretary of State Brian Kemp decisively won the Republican nomination for Georgia governor Tuesday, defeating Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle after a grueling runoff shaped by secret recordings, provocative ads and the late intervention of President Donald Trump.

Kemp’s victory sets up a November showdown against former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams to decide one of the nation’s most-watched races. The two are bitter foes who have scrapped over voting rights and election security since 2014.

Cagle was the heavy favorite when he entered the race last year, thanks to three statewide victories and a huge fundraising advantage. But Cagle was hobbled by damaging audio covertly recorded by a former GOP rival, and any chance of his victory slipped away after Trump endorsed Kemp.

RELATED: AJC Election Results charts

President Donald Trump on Wednesday tweeted his "full and total endorsement" for Secretary of State Brian Kemp in the state's Republican race for governor.

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The secretary of state used both developments to portray himself as the more trustworthy conservative and the bigger ally to Trump, and he attracted droves of media attention with a weekend rally with Vice President Mike Pence.

Kemp gave thanks to both Trump and Pence. In a reference to the president's endorsement, delivered by social media, Kemp told his supporters, "We cannot forget that tweet that we heard around Georgia." 

“We had the momentum in this race," Kemp said, "but those endorsements by the president and the vice president poured gasoline on the fire.” 

The GOP nominee then turned quickly to November's election. 

“Hillary Clinton, George Soros and Nancy Pelosi all have Georgia on their mind," Kemp said. "For months, they’ve been campaigning for Stacey Abrams, the out-of-touch radical liberal who cares more for her billionaire backers than for you all.” 

The contest, more than a year in the making, was settled early Tuesday night, when Cagle offered his concession. 

“Obviously, tonight did not turn out quite the way that we had anticipated, but this journey does not go unanswered. We ran a phenomenal campaign,” Cagle told his supporters. “Thank you for all that you’ve done. None of you gave up, and you kept fighting the good fight.”

The race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal, who cannot run for a third term, has fast become one of the nation’s premier midterm elections. Georgia has long been in the crosshairs for national Democrats, and Abrams’ bid to become the nation’s first black female governor has energized her party’s supporters.

The primary contests have driven both parties to their flanks, creating a gulf between the two parties that’s as wide as it has been in decades. It’s also smashed fundraising records: The contest has already cost more than $33 million, becoming – with more than three months to go until Election Day – the most expensive race for Georgia governor in state history.

Kemp modeled his campaign after Trump from the moment he entered the race with a mantra of “putting Georgians first.” A former state senator, the 54-year-old wooed conservatives with his pledge to impose a spending cap at the state Capitol and tailor tax incentives to help more small businesses.

Cagle, meanwhile, portrayed himself as an inevitable heir to Deal who promised to cut taxes by at least $100 million and create 500,000 jobs.

While Abrams won her party’s nomination in May with a platform built on energizing left-leaning voters who rarely vote in midterm races, the Republican race dragged on for nine more weeks after none of the five candidates in the primary captured a majority of the vote.

Cagle was the leading vote-getter in that contest, helped by a barrage of advertisements and timely help from outside groups boosting his campaign. But there were worrying signs; he struggled in stretches of rural Georgia and didn’t carry his native Hall County.

Kemp scored a place in the runoff thanks partly to a series of edgy TV advertisements, including one that showed him pointing a shotgun toward an actor courting his teenage daughter and another featuring him in a pickup truck vowing to “round up criminal illegals” himself.

Brian Kemp is running for Governor. The AJC had three questions for him.

The runoff sharply divided the GOP, splitting state legislators, grass-roots activists and prominent politicians. Many of the state’s establishment forces helped stock Cagle’s campaign with more than $10.5 million, while Kemp relied on a deep network of supporters in rural Georgia.

The race between the two hinged more on personality and controversies than policy, largely because the candidates had strikingly similar positions on the issues that dominated the race, such as cutting taxes, expanding gun rights and restricting abortions.

Each supported a move to deny Delta Air Lines a proposed tax break after the Atlanta-based airline ended a discount for National Rifle Association members, a move orchestrated by Cagle that earned him the gun group’s endorsement — and the enmity from some business leaders.

Both Cagle and Kemp vowed to continue Deal’s legacy, even though the two threatened to upset his carefully cultivated relationship with Fortune 500 giants by supporting “religious liberty” measures like the one he vetoed in 2016. And both criticized Atlanta’s new mayor, complicating the state’s close ties with City Hall.

Their stances on the issues, though, were overshadowed by a series of twists that started with a secretly made recording of Cagle admitting he supported what he described as “bad public policy” for political reasons.

July 24, 2018 - Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle speaks to members of the press before his election night watch party at Atlanta Marriott Century Center on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. Republican Party voters can choose among the party's two finalists for governor, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The winner will advance to the Nov. 6 general election against Democrat Stacey Abrams. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)

In another snippet of the recording, which was covertly made by former GOP candidate Clay Tippins, Cagle lamented that the GOP primary was a race over “who could be the craziest.”

Kemp’s campaign quickly focused on the recording, invoking the words at every campaign stop and debate to paint Cagle as an untrustworthy insider. His allies soon called for a federal investigation into potential “quid pro quo,” an accusation that Cagle called desperate.

The lieutenant governor’s campaign countered by seizing on Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports of Kemp’s investment in a troubled Kentucky seed-crushing plant that piled up unpaid debts to farmers, as well as questionable campaign contributions he received from individuals and businesses under his office’s purview.

Never particularly close to the governor, Cagle jockeyed for his endorsement for months and earned it a week before the vote. After an AJC poll showed the lieutenant governor trailing Kemp in a tight contest, Cagle’s campaign hailed the endorsement as a turning point that the lieutenant governor highlighted in a wave of last-minute ads and mailers.

But Deal was upstaged days later by Trump’s surprise decision to give Kemp his “full and total endorsement,” a move that was promptly followed by a Saturday visit from Pence to rally voters in Macon.

The secretary of state swiftly moved to capitalize on the White House support, confident that Trump’s soaring popularity among primary voters would help him woo undecided voters. He quickly rolled out a new ad highlighting the president’s tweet, airing it across the state in the final days of the race.

Kemp’s victory paves the way for a general election matchup between two candidates who are on opposite sides of Georgia’s bigger divides. And Abrams hopes to mobilize Democrats by staking liberal policies rather than hewing to more centrist strategies that past Democratic candidates embraced.

Abrams backs gun control measures, while Kemp wants to expand gun rights. Abrams wants to expand Medicaid, while Kemp staunchly opposes enlarging the program. Abrams wants to protect abortion rights, while Kemp vowed to sign the nation’s strictest abortion restrictions.

Kemp called it "a crystal clear contrast” and pleaded for his supporters' help in "a fight against Stacey Abrams and her radical backers." 

"I ask for you to dig deep. We’ve got to hunker down folks," Kemp said. "As we’ve been saying lately, we’ve got to keep chopping wood.”

Staff writers Aaron Holmes and Fleming Smith contributed to this article.

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