At GOP forums, governor hopefuls race to the right

Georgia’s state Capitol

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Georgia’s state Capitol

The four leading Republican candidates for governor said no dice to legalized gambling. They stood in unison behind Georgia’s perennial debate over “religious liberty” legislation. They spoke enthusiastically about plans to cut taxes and spending, and their willingness to fight for gun rights.

In short, the first Republican gubernatorial forums, held over the weekend in Milledgeville and Augusta, underscored the GOP’s race to the right. No one, it seemed, wanted to risk being outflanked by one of their conservative opponents this early in the contest.

But the forums were also notable for the distinct, if nuanced, policy differences that divide the candidates. All might rail against “career politicians” — even though all hold or held elected office — but all have sharply different approaches.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle used sweeping terms to describe the transformative power of transit. Former state Sen. Hunter Hill repeated his pledge to double the state’s financial commitment to transportation “without raising taxes.”

Secretary of State Brian Kemp said a strict state spending cap would bring tax relief to Georgia voters. And state Sen. Michael Williams, poking and prodding at Cagle throughout the forums, was the only candidate willing to support the in-state cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

They were the first formal showdowns featuring the four contenders, who also shared the stage with Marc Alan Urbach, an educator running as a constitutional conservative. A sixth candidate, Clay Tippins, has filed paperwork to run but has not formally announced.

The meetings came days after Democratic contenders Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both former state legislators, held their own "conversation" in Atlanta that also offered a preview of the race ahead to replace a term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal in 2018.

A grass-roots appeal

In their competition to appeal to the party’s conservative base, the candidates quickly found common ground on the issues that grass-roots voters hold dearest.

Chief among them was a religious liberty measure critics say could allow opponents of same-sex marriage to cite religious beliefs in denying services to gay couples. Deal vetoed a 2016 version of the legislation amid threats of economic boycotts from critics who cast it as state-sanctioned discrimination.

All four had previously pledged to sign the religious liberty proposal as governor, and at the weekend forums some wondered aloud over why the measure has sparked such controversy.

Kemp said flatly he doesn’t “see an issue” while Hill, invoking the 1993 version of the legislation signed by President Bill Clinton, said: “If it’s good enough for the federal government, it’s good enough for Georgia.”

Cagle's stance has provoked the most scrutiny. He was an unabashed supporter of the legislation in 2016 but didn't forcefully push it during this year's legislative session, saying he hoped the U.S. Supreme Court, reinforced by President Donald Trump's new appointee, would settle the issue.

At the Milledgeville forum Saturday, Cagle said he will stick with his pledge if elected, saying he doesn’t “see it as discriminatory in any way.”

That brought a challenge from Williams, who dared Cagle to back the measure during next year’s legislative session so “he can show us all he truly does support religious liberty.”

Watching the back-and-forth from afar were members of Deal’s administration, eager to protect his legacy. In a rejoinder on Twitter, Deal chief of staff Chris Riley wrote that the Republicans shouldn’t “bet and risk our AAA rating, unprecedented job growth, and economic development prospects.”

Gambling and guns

There was a fast consensus on two other hot-button issues. Each vowed to oppose a constitutional amendment that would allow casino gambling in Georgia and funnel some proceeds to the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, although some were more forceful than others.

Kemp, Hill and Williams said they would oppose the measure because the state didn’t need the extra money or because of fears that it could lead to more crime and other vices.

“We are doing fine without gambling,” Hill said.

Cagle also said he’d reject the measure but then quickly pivoted to talk about the “enormous opportunity” for economic development in South Georgia through other growing industries.

And each expressed support for legislation that would relax more of Georgia’s firearms restrictions, with several candidates saying a new law that allows college students and others to carry concealed weapons on public campuses didn’t go far enough.

“I hunt. I shoot. And I carry. I certainly would have signed the piece of legislation,” Kemp said, adding that he instructs his attorneys to “fight like hell” against left-leaning lawyers who aim to chip away at Republican policies.

Transit taboos

Other policy divides weren’t so cut-and-dry. Williams broke with the rest of the GOP field in supporting an expansion of Georgia’s medical marijuana program, which permits people with some illnesses to possess cannabis oil but doesn’t allow it to be grown or cultivated in the state.

“I know there are parents out there who are suffering. I do not believe that the government needs to be in their way,” Williams said. “We need to allow access … to make sure they can take care of their family members.”

And Cagle unequivocally backed transit, once a taboo political topic outside of metro Atlanta, pitching it as an economic development tool that would help keep the state’s engines of commerce roaring.

“Transit is a big piece, a tool in the toolbox that is going to be critically important, just like we’re dealing with Amazon coming to our state,” Cagle said. “Transit is a part of that decision as well.”

Kemp, who has staked his campaign on support in rural Georgia, offered a note of caution.

“My first question is going to be is how much is it going to cost, and who’s going to pay for it,” he said at the Milledgeville event. “Nobody likes congestion in Atlanta. But to relieve that congestion, what’s it going to cost you in Milledgeville or Baldwin County?”

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