The Republican field of candidates, so far, for Georgia governor, from left: former state Sen. Hunter Hill, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, state Sen. Michael Williams and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Republicans race for attention early in Georgia governor race

Republican candidates in Georgia routinely race to the party’s right flank, but the leading contenders in next year’s GOP race for governor have set a new pace as they try to outdo each other with attention-grabbing moves a year from the vote.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle opened a nasty feud with the liberal stronghold of Decatur, and he relayed every twist and turn of the fight to his supporters with campaign updates.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp harrumphed about a legal advisory that cleared the way for cheerleaders to kneel for the national anthem, and he blasted reports critical of his office’s role in a lawsuit as “fake news.”

And state Sen. Michael Williams has unloaded an arsenal of appeals aimed at proving he’s the most ardently conservative candidate, from raffling off a device like one used in the Las Vegas massacre to leading a protest against a teacher who disciplined students for wearing a pro-Donald Trump T-shirt.

Williams has engaged in so many ploys that another rival, former state Sen. Hunter Hill, compared him to an ongoing “circus act.”

“Politicians are always going to pull stunts during an election year,” said Cody Hall, a spokesman for Hill.

“As a three tour combat veteran, Hunter understands what it takes for a mission to be successful,” Hall said. “Voters want a battle-tested, true conservative leader with the experience to deliver results — not another career politician posturing to win votes.”

There’s a strategic necessity behind the maneuvering. The candidates are competing for a slice of the vote that skews far more conservative than the state’s overall electorate. And in Georgia GOP politics, that means an ongoing battle to avoid being painted as soft on conservative issues.

That’s one reason all the leading candidates have embraced the “religious liberty” proposals popular with the party’s base, despite warnings from Gov. Nathan Deal that it could risk the state’s pursuit of Amazon’s second headquarters and other economic development deals.

And it also means none can dare put much daylight between himself and President Donald Trump, who remains exceedingly popular among Republican voters. Trump’s approval rating hovers above 80 percent in some surveys of likely GOP voters in Georgia.

“Everyone is putting on a rhetorical fashion show for the base right now — trying to model the most conservative hat and bloomers, so to speak,” said Dan McLagan, a former aide to ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

The Democratic candidates, former state Reps. Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, hope the jockeying comes back to haunt whoever emerges from the Republican field.

“Voters around the country and here in Georgia rejected extreme right-wing revanchist rhetoric,” Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said. “Candidates, regardless of party, would do well to focus on evidence-based policy solutions that will bring our country and state together.”

But they’ve staked their own positions that could complicate their general election pitch. Both broke with recent Democratic strategy by calling for new gun restrictions after the massacre in Las Vegas. And Abrams has called for the removal of the trio of Confederate leaders carved in the face of Stone Mountain, saying we “must never celebrate those who defended slavery and tried to destroy the Union.”

No slow start

The campaign for governor has been well underway since the spring, when a spate of candidates formally entered the race or signaled that they would jump in.

And at the heart of the Republican battle is a fight to win over the grass-roots base of likely GOP voters. In 2010, the last wide-open race for governor, about 680,000 voters cast ballots in the first round of the Republican primary, roughly one-quarter of the total vote for the general election.

(The Democratic nominee was chosen by an even smaller bloc of 400,000 voters.)

The campaigns have already begun to assiduously target their most likely supporters, and several have announced they have a network of supporters in each of Georgia’s 159 counties.

And yet it’s still early enough — the party primaries aren’t until May — that the field is still in flux.

Even internal polls released by Cagle’s and Kemp’s campaigns show that neither of the two candidates, the only two statewide officers in the field, have a lock on the two spots in a likely runoff.

Another Republican contender, businessman Clay Tippins, recently filed paperwork to run for governor; he’s set to open his campaign headquarters Wednesday in Buckhead. And some party figures have pushed for another high-profile candidate, such as U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, to enter the race.

Bump stocks and ‘nothingburgers’

That uncertainty has added another layer of volatility to the race, as each candidate has rushed to shore up his conservative credentials.

Cagle, a Gainesville Republican first elected to state office in 1994, is wary of being slapped with an “establishment” label and has gone on the offensive with a ripe Republican target.

He’s in a lengthy war of words accusing the city of Decatur of violating a state law that bars local governments from providing sanctuary to immigrants in the country illegally. Decatur officials have denied any wrongdoing.

Kemp, who oversees the state’s elections, lashed out after the state Attorney General’s Office issued guidance that suggested the decisions by Kennesaw State University cheerleaders who took a knee during the national anthem were protected by free speech.

“Just because you have the right to protest,” he said in a statement shortly after the guidance was made public, “doesn’t make it right.”

And faced with questions about the erasure of a computer server that’s a part of a lawsuit challenging the state’s voting system, Kemp’s campaign called coverage of the move a “tasteless nothingburger.”

The ‘Dancing Ferret’

But no candidate has been so aggressive with headline-grabbing attempts as Williams, a Cumming Republican first elected to the Georgia Senate in 2014, who is putting his early endorsement for Trump at the center of his campaign.

He claimed without evidence that he was offered a coveted position in the Senate if he abandoned his gubernatorial bid. He held a press conference promising “corroborating” details about Cagle that fell short of his promise. He claimed victory after a Cherokee County teacher he protested against resigned amid death threats after she told two students to conceal their pro-Trump shirts. He made TV reality actor Dog the Bounty Hunter his campaign co-chairman.

And he grabbed a wave of national headlines when he announced he would give away a bump stock device to “one lucky winner” days after authorities said it was used by a gunman in Las Vegas in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. He claimed the use of the device “actually prevented more casualties” because it was so inaccurate.

His supporters are quick to note he’s also played a proactive role on GOP policies. He was one of the first to pledge he would sign a “religious liberty” measure if elected; he is the only leading Republican to support a proposal to expand Georgia’s medical marijuana program by legalizing the in-state cultivation of the drug.

“I might not be able to give the best speeches, have the best punch lines,” Williams said at a Cobb County GOP gathering. “But I’m going to go out there and fight for our rights, our liberties tooth and nail.”

But he’s facing a backlash from some Republican officials who said he has gone too far.

“News — real and fake — is coming hard and fast these days, so candidates are trying to stand out. But there’s a line,” said McLagan, the GOP strategist who has not picked a side in next year’s election.

“If you run around in a Speedo with a clown tattoo on your chest and your hair on fire, you will get on the news,” he added. “The problem is, people don’t want Gorgonzola the Dancing Ferret as their governor.”

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