Georgia insurance commissioner candidate Jay Florence only had a few minutes to impress voters at a recent Republican Party gathering in Madison County, so he went right for the good stuff.
Within the first 30 seconds, he made clear his support for the Second Amendment.
As insurance commissioner, Florence would regulate insurance and small loan businesses and serve as the state fire marshal. Gun rights advocacy isn’t really part of the job description. But he knew his audience.
“I think when people talk to you, they often don’t know what the insurance commissioner does,” Florence said in an interview. “They are concerned that they share your values. That (gun rights) matters to people, so as a result, that matters to me.”
At least in the Republican primary.
A few months after a mass shooting at a Florida high school reignited a nationwide debate over gun control, Georgia Republicans have aggressively moved in the opposite direction.
One GOP candidate for governor aired an ad showing him pointing a shotgun toward his daughter’s suitor, and he has also called for a sales tax holiday for guns and ammunition over the July Fourth holiday. Another contender, a military veteran, was branded a traitor for suggesting raising minimum age limits. A leading candidate for Georgia’s No. 2 job challenged his top rival to a shootout.
The gun debate is playing a central role in races that have nothing to do with firearms: Candidates for secretary of state, insurance commissioner and labor commissioner are asked about it.
And Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Republican front-runner, sent backers a lengthy dispatch assuring them he supports “constitutional carry” — which would let gun owners conceal and carry handguns without a permit — days after he was quoted opposing the policy.
That came two months after the ultimate GOP show of force for gun rights: The Legislature — led by Cagle — stripped a tax break for Delta Air Lines, the state’s largest private employer, after it cut ties with the National Rifle Association.
The Republican-led General Assembly’s only nod to the Florida shooting came in the state budget, where it added $16 million in grants to beef up security in schools.
The tighter embrace of firearms by GOP candidates comes as Democrats intensify calls for gun control, and polls show an increasing number of conservatives favor tightening firearms laws. But Republicans seeking primary votes from staunch conservatives in the May 22 race say their voters are demanding strong pro-gun stances.
“Republican primary voters are smart. They know that if someone is weak on guns, that they’re probably going to be weak on a lot of things,” said Hunter Hill, a GOP contender for governor who has faced his own scrutiny on guns.
The former senator backtracked on comments suggesting he supported raising the minimum age to buy assault rifles from 18 to 21, then trumpeted his “A” rating from the NRA as proof of his credentials. Still, the former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger was depicted in an ad as a “Benedict Arnold” for his remarks.
The focus on guns is not for lack of campaign stump material.
The Republican-led Legislature adopted a measure to cut the income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent over the next two years. And Gov. Nathan Deal last week took a five-city trek touting a budget that fully funds k-12 schools for the first time since 2002.
The five leading GOP contenders running for governor have highlighted those shifts and rolled out their own. But guns are never far from the debate. At a recent stop in east Georgia, Cagle was asked about legislation he supported that lets school districts decide whether to arm teachers.
“It’s a very evil world today,” he said, “and we want our schools to be the safest place for our children to be.”
A few days later, Cagle tweeted a photo of his wife, Nita, wielding an AR-15 at a gun range in Jasper.
Gun control advocates say Republicans are clinging to outdated views that will come back to haunt them in November.
Democrats running for competitive state legislative seats held by Republicans in the Atlanta suburbs are contrasting themselves from rivals by calling for gun restrictions.
And both the Democratic candidates at the top of the ticket — former House Minority Stacey Abrams and ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans — are defying decades of conventional party strategy by opposing the NRA and calling for new firearms limits.
“Republicans are misreading the broad swath of voters in this state who understand and support the need for gun safety measures,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat who has long backed gun restrictions. “If you look at how women in the suburbs are voting, they’re going to be in favor of taking action.”
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll released in April underscores a potential shift.
In perhaps the most surprising finding, 45 percent of likely Republican primary voters want stricter rules covering the sale of firearms and 46 percent want those rules to stay the same. Only 7 percent of respondents want to loosen gun regulations to make it easier to buy firearms.
But conservatives point to findings in the poll and their own internal surveys that indicate enduring support for gun rights expansions. Although the NRA’s reputation may as well be mud to Georgia Democrats, nearly 3 in 4 GOP voters said they approved of the group.
Up and down ballot
That may be why Republicans have raced to outdo each other to show their love for guns.
The highest-profile move was the rush to condemn Delta when it ended a discounted-flight program for NRA members after the shooting deaths of 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., school. That decision cost Delta a jet fuel tax break worth $40 million annually that was poised for approval.
Cagle earned the NRA’s endorsement — and harsh criticism from Democrats — for leading that fight. And he and other rivals have traded barbs over just how ardently they support the NRA.
The gun debate has spread into Republican primaries in down-ballot races as well.
After the NRA endorsed state Sen. David Shafer for lieutenant governor, former state Sen. Rick Jeffares, one of his opponents, challenged him to a high-noon shootout. The winner of the clay shoot would stay in the race, with the loser bowing out. Shafer declined, saying he’ll “let the voters settle the election.”
After the challenge, Shafer was also endorsed by GeorgiaCarry.org, another gun rights group that’s powerful at the statehouse.
State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, is running for secretary of state. That office handles elections and corporate filings, and it oversees licensing boards. But on the campaign trail, McKoon gets asked about guns, too.
“You get those questions from voters one-on-one: Where are you on Second Amendment issues? How are you rated by the NRA?” McKoon said.
McKoon noted that the NRA sent questionnaires to secretary of state candidates, even though the office has more to do with securities markets than stopping power.
“Look, I think on a lot of these issues, people say somebody is running for statewide office, they might run for something else, we want them on the record on our issues,” McKoon said. “For a lot of voters, they want you to clear a couple of hurdles before they start talking about the issues (of your office).”
As the state’s labor commissioner, Mark Butler’s job is to oversee Georgia’s unemployment system and job-training programs. But he’s also a gun rights-supporting Republican who has to run for re-election every four years.
“There are some people who are one-issue voters,” Butler said. “They want to know where you are on that.”
Nowhere is it a bigger issue than in the governor’s race. And the most striking display of pro-gun ardor may have come from Kemp, the current secretary of state.
His campaign for governor put $1 million behind an ad showing him cleaning a double-barreled shotgun while he quizzes a young man named “Jake” about what to remember if he wants to date Kemp’s daughter.
“Respect,” said the young man, and “a healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir.”
Kemp then closes the gun, pointing it toward a nervous-looking Jake.
“We’re going to get along just fine,” Kemp said.
The ad attracted a rush of national attention and outrage about his seemingly cavalier attitude toward guns. Kemp, meanwhile, pointed to the pushback — and the attention he’s generated — as a sign his message is resonating.
“It’s driving the liberal media crazy.”