Race for Georgia governor takes shape three years out

The next governor’s race is a long ways off, but the campaign for the state’s top job is well underway.

At least a half-dozen influential Republicans and three high-profile Democrats are mulling a run for the state’s top job in 2018. Some are already lining up staffers, calling donors and holding quiet meetings with their allies to gauge their chances of succeeding Gov. Nathan Deal, who cannot run for a third consecutive term.

Republicans hope to maintain their grip on an office they’ve held since 2002, but some worry about the prospect of a bloody primary battle. Across the aisle, there’s an equal amount of fidgeting as three of the Democratic Party’s rising stars circle each other.

And there’s always a chance another name, perhaps a relative unknown, emerges between now and 2018. After all, three years before the 2010 campaign, Deal was a low-profile congressman from Gainesville who was hardly mentioned as a contender for governor.

One candidate — Libertarian Doug Craig — has already announced, even though there’s more than three years to go before the vote.

“All I can say is you better buckle up. It’s going to be crazy,” said Dale Jackson, a Republican operative from LaGrange and the chairman of the state party’s 3rd District who has heard plenty of buzz. “And what I’m already thinking about is the turmoil that happens when everybody steps down and a slew of new seats become vacant.”

A few surprises

None of the potential Republican or Democratic candidates or their top strategists would talk openly about their plans. But interviews with a half-dozen operatives revealed a behind-the-scenes race for top consultants, fundraising specialists and activists.

Among the Republicans contemplating a run are Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Attorney General Sam Olens. A gaggle of sitting congressmen are said to be watching the race, including U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, and former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston is also a potential contender.

Cagle, who would come in with high name recognition as the state’s lieutenant governor since 2006, has traveled the state for ribbon-cuttings and fundraisers, talked to campaign strategists and nailed down supporters in case he runs. If he does, it will be his second bid. He was a top candidate in the 2010 Republican primary race but withdrew and ran for re-election instead.

Kemp has quietly reached out to key grass-roots activists and locked down advisers should he decide to run. He’s also riding a wave of national attention — and face time with presidential candidates — as the architect of the regional “SEC primary.”

Olens will be in the spotlight more thanks to legislation that gave him control of the Office of Consumer Affairs, and he will likely push next year for stronger measures to crack down on identity theft and fraud against members of the military.

Westmoreland is said to be keeping tabs on the race, and Kingston, who lost a U.S. Senate bid, is busy on the rubber-chicken circuit as the Georgia GOP’s top fundraiser.

Some other surprising names have also bubbled up.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s camp has sought to squelch rumors that he wants to run for governor and ditch Washington. His cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, said he’s heard from other Republicans wondering whether he would attempt a return to the Governor’s Mansion.

“I don’t know what it’s all about,” Sonny Perdue said. “I really would love to confront whoever’s creating those rumors, and maybe we’ll have a conversation one of these days.”

Each potential contender is expected to spend time on the campaign trail over the next year stumping for his or her favored GOP presidential candidate. But the rallies and canned speeches could also serve another purpose for budding gubernatorial campaigns.

“The 2016 election is an opportunity for prospective candidates to lay the groundwork,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican strategist. “They won’t necessarily announce their own candidacy, but they could use the 2016 cycle to grow their own network.”

Bill Crane, a veteran political analyst, said the race already has all the makings of a free-for-all.

“The GOP field for governor may end up something like the GOP field for president, where there’s no natural front-runner and no heir apparent,” Crane said. “And the Democratic field could be just as wide open.”

‘Everyone is on Kasim watch’

Democrats cleared the field in 2014 to let Jason Carter, then a state senator and a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, run for governor. But he probably won’t have another cakewalk to his party’s nomination if he decides to run again.

Carter returned to private practice after his loss to Deal, but he’s a constant presence at Democratic fundraisers and local civic events. He’s also about to get a boost in his national profile in November when he becomes the chairman of the Carter Center, his grandfather’s international civil rights group.

Stacey Abrams is also seen as a top contender. The Yale-educated attorney and author is the top Democrat in the state House. She’s also the driving force behind the New Georgia Project, which aims to register hundreds of thousands of new left-leaning voters to cut into the GOP advantage in Georgia.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is the biggest subject of speculation. The mayor finishes his second term in office in early 2018, and he has become a national spokesman for the party on the talk show circuit and a key surrogate for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

“Everyone is on Kasim watch,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist. “But winning statewide in a general election will still be very tough in 2018 for any Democrat.”

It could be a gut-wrenching campaign for Democrats, who haven’t had a wide-open gubernatorial primary since Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor squared off against Secretary of State Cathy Cox in 2006. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who ran in 2010, faced several Democratic opponents but was still the front-runner.

“For the first time, in a long time, Democrats will have to choose sides,” said Liz Flowers, a Democratic strategist. “For those not around when the Democrats controlled state politics, this can be tough.”

A Libertarian jumps in

The early jockeying could pose challenges for the current governor’s administration, as Deal mounts a campaign for more changes to Georgia’s education system in his last years in office. Chris Riley, Deal’s top aide, said he was concerned about the maneuvering underway.

“I just assumed the field respected the current governor enough not to get out in front of this governor before the ‘16 cycle,” Riley said.

One gubernatorial hopeful has already taken the plunge.

Libertarian Craig became the first candidate to publicly announce. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that he would be a third-party candidate who is not afraid to run with a “strong message.”

Craig, a brawny sheet-metal fabricator on Atlanta’s Southside, is the former chairman of the party’s Georgia branch. He backs the same anti-tax, limited-government platform that other Libertarians support, and he intends to emphasize a resume that includes a stint as a U.S. Navy nuclear plant operator.

“We always have a shot,” he said. “But my goal is to run the campaign at a different level than others have — radio ads, TV commercials.”

Craig doesn’t downplay the tough odds awaiting him. The two Libertarians who ran for governor and the U.S. Senate in 2014 barely mustered 100,000 votes between them, and their fundraising power is negligible.

Asked why he’s jumping into the race now — more than 39 months before the contest — Craig was glib.

“Because Libertarians always wait to the last minute.”

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Daniel Malloy contributed to this story.