Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association in his bid to become Georgia’s next governor. In February, after Delta Air Lines severed business ties with the NRA, Cagle effectively blocked legislation that would have saved the airline $40 million a year in jet-fuel costs. “Casey Cagle has very publicly chosen to stand with us,” NRA Chief Executive Chris Cox said. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

NRA throws its weight behind Cagle in Georgia governor’s race

The National Rifle Association endorsed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s campaign for Georgia governor weeks after he promised to “kill” any legislation that would benefit Delta Air Lines after it cut ties with the gun rights group.

The endorsement Thursday was no surprise — the group publicly thanked Cagle for his support in February — but it comes after another Republican contender, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, wrote an open letter urging the NRA to stay neutral in the crowded race.

“At a time when the five million members of the NRA are under attack like never before, Casey Cagle has very publicly chosen to stand with us,” NRA Chief Executive Chris Cox said.

Cagle earned national attention in February when he announced his opposition to a jet-fuel tax break that would have saved Delta about $40 million a year shortly after the Atlanta-based airline severed business ties with the NRA.

The airline said it ended discounted rates for NRA members because it wanted to remain “neutral” in a growing gun control debate, but Georgia conservatives have long accused the airline of trying to influence state policy in other areas.

The tax break was at the top of Delta’s legislative wish list, and it initially had the support of Gov. Nathan Deal and a host of powerful lawmakers. But Cagle’s stance effectively blocked it from becoming law, and the governor was forced to sign into law a measure cutting the income tax rate without the jet fuel incentives.

A poll by a Cagle-aligned group suggested his standings in the May 22 contest had slightly improved after the tiff. The lieutenant governor is leading in public and private polls, and there’s a tight race for the second spot in a likely July runoff.

Kemp and the other three major GOP candidates for governor — former state Sen. Hunter Hill, business executive Clay Tippins and state Sen. Michael Williams — also backed stripping the Delta break. Williams had actively fought to remove the incentives weeks before the NRA tiff exploded.

But Kemp wrote a letter to Cox earlier this month claiming that Cagle had defied his broad promise to spike legislation that would benefit Delta because a separate mass transit measure included language that could exempt jet fuel from a local transportation tax.

“As those of us involved in Georgia politics like to say: You’ve been Casey Cagled,” Kemp wrote. “He tells you one thing while cutting secret deals to help Delta down the line.”

Cagle’s office said the legislation wouldn’t benefit Delta, and his campaign said the letter smacks of desperation. Cagle’s campaign manager, Scott Binkley, accused Kemp of being “clueless” about the legislation.

Critics, including leading Democrats and corporate boosters, worried aloud that the maneuvering around the jet-fuel tax break had cost Georgia a shot at Amazon’s second headquarters or other big-name economic development recruits.

While the NRA’s endorsement remains coveted among Republicans — the group also backed state Sen. David Shafer’s bid for lieutenant governor — the Democratic contenders are feuding over just how much they loathe the gun group.

Former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and former state Rep. Stacey Evans have repeatedly clashed over votes on issues the NRA has backed, and each vowed to be the gun lobby’s enemy.

Both have also accused Republicans of playing politics with Georgia’s largest private employerSeveral high-profile business leaders and Delta executives contributed to each of their campaigns shortly after Cagle’s stance.

Abrams had a four-word response to the news of the NRA’s endorsement: “He can have it.”

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