By Greg Bluestein - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle will face Secretary of State Brian Kemp in a July runoff, after the two emerged as the top finalists Tuesday in the five-man race for the Republican nomination for Georgia governor.
Whoever emerges from the grueling nine-week runoff will face a November showdown against former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a competition that will test whether the state is competitive after more than a decade of Republican rule.
Cagle has prepared his run for governor for a decade and had the highest profile in the Republican field thanks to three statewide victories and robust fundraising. But despite campaign fundraising that vastly exceeded his opponents, he failed to get a majority of the vote and avoid a runoff.
He’ll face Kemp, who used a series of provocative ads to help him emerge from the crowded field. One TV spot showed him brandishing a shotgun while talking to a nervous-looking young man, and in another be boasted that he’d “round up criminal illegals” in his own pickup truck.
At his campaign party in an Athens hotel, Kemp told hundreds of cheering supporters he would work to relentlessly paint Cagle as a moderate.
“He’s not a leader. He’s a puppet,” said Kemp. “Yeah, I just said that. He’s not fighting for us. He’s fighting for those with deep pockets whose interests are not ours.”
Cagle tried to win over conservatives with promises to sign a “religious liberty” measure and won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association after he pledged to “kill” a tax break for Delta Air Lines when it cut ties with the pro-gun lobby.
But he also faced criticism from rivals who branded him an ineffective career politician who won’t aggressively champion conservative values. And though Cagle tacked to the right on some issues, he also refused to follow opponents who pledged deeper tax breaks or stricter abortion limits.
In his victory speech in his hometown of Gainesville, Cagle said he would “continue to fight for the value system of Georgia - for the Second Amendment as well.”
A race to the right
Cagle’s rivals tried to outflank him – and each other – at every turn during the yearlong race. Democrats hope the GOP field was pulled so far from the center it gives them an opening to flip the state’s top office for the first time since 2002.
The Republican race featured what seemed like a constant effort by the candidates to outdo one another with soaring campaign promises to cut or eliminate taxes and new initiatives to expand gun rights or crack down on illegal immigration.
Each of the candidates tried to carve out his niche. Former state Sen. Hunter Hill, a military veteran, vowed to eliminate the state income tax over seven years and make deep cuts to the state budget. He finished in third place, urging Cagle and Kemp to embrace his tax policy.
"We do not have forever to turn our state back toward fiscal sanity,” said Hill in a somber concession speech. “If our leaders tackle these issues, our best days are ahead."
Clay Tippins, an executive for a consulting firm, emphasized boosting third-grade reading levels and expanding Georgia’s medical marijuana program. He also said the state’s workforce needed to be retooled to better deal with a growing population.
And state Sen. Michael Williams made his loyalty to the president – he was the first state official to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy – a central theme of his bid to run as the most ardent conservative.
A Delta dispute
The race got its biggest jolt in February after Delta ended a discount program with the NRA, leading Cagle to orchestrate the demise of a lucrative tax break on jet fuel that would have benefited the Atlanta-based airline.
All four of his GOP rivals also supported the move, though some accused Cagle of politicizing his decision. Democrats assailed the GOP, raising concerns that punishing the state’s largest private employer could jeopardize Atlanta’s quest for other economic development deals.
That helped win over Myra Busch, a Dunwoody retiree who said she voted for Cagle because he stood up to the corporate heavyweight.
“I dind’t like that - I wanted them to stay out of politics,” said Busch. “And Cagle won that vote. That’s the big reason I voted for him.”
Soon, gun rights emerged more sharply as a dominant theme in the vote.
The leading candidates backed a “constitutional carry” provision that would let gun owners conceal and carry handguns without a permit. And Hill, a former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, was branded a traitor by another contender, executive Clay Tippins, for briefly suggesting he would raise the age limit to buy assault rifles.
But guns were far from the only social conservative strain that factored into the competition. Most of the candidates agreed to support “religious liberty” legislation that Deal vetoed, tussled over who would pass the staunchest abortion restrictions and tried to one-up each other on immigration policy.
The final stretch of the contest focused heavily on immigration. Cagle abruptly announced he would send Georgia National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. Kemp trumpeted an ad boasting he’d “round up criminal illegals” in his own pickup truck. And Williams embarked on a “deportation tour” with a gray-clad bus that attracted demonstrators at many of his stops.
Only Cagle staked out positions with an eye toward the general election, thanks to a commanding lead in the polls that offered him more flexibility than his rivals.
He entered the race with a pledge to cut taxes by $100 million – a more modest proposal than many rivals – and aired mostly sunny campaign ads touting the economy and workforce development initiatives.
As some opponents took hard-line positions to his right, he rejected calls to eliminate more tax breaks, fund broad new pay increases for local law enforcement and adopt some social legislation.
Kemp is sure to sharpen his attacks. He’s angled for the same rural vote that powered Trump’s victory in Georgia, and he focused his final pitch on red-meat issues such as new crackdowns on illegal immigration and a tough-on-crime initiative aimed at gangs.
But he also faces vulnerabilities over his business record and blunders he oversaw that include the accidental disclosure in 2015 of Social Security numbers and other private information of more than 6 million voters to media outlets and political parties.
-Staff writers Jennifer Brett, Amanda Coyne and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.