The day after last week’s election should have been the start of the 2018 campaign for governor in Georgia, but Donald Trump’s stunning presidential victory scrambled the race before it even had a chance to begin.
Suddenly, several potential Republican contenders for the state’s top job may now stay in Washington as their clout grows in a Trump administration. The New York businessman’s win all but assures at least one — maybe several — nontraditional candidate jumps in the race. And top Democrats could pounce on the chance to tie the GOP nominee to Trump in two years.
It further jumbles an already wide-open race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal, who cannot run for a third term in November 2018.
“The snow globe was just getting good and shaken up,” said Dan McLagan, a Republican strategist. “The election may have smashed it up against the wall again.”
Several Republicans are potential contenders, including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, U.S. Rep. Tom Price, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue, and former U.S. Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Jack Kingston. Potential Democratic candidates include former state Sen. Jason Carter, the party’s 2014 nominee, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and ex-U.S. Rep. John Barrow.
On the Republican side, many strategists expect the 2018 race to unfold somewhat like the party’s crowded primary in 2014 for an open U.S. Senate seat, where an establishment-favored Kingston emerged to challenge Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive and political novice, in a runoff. Perdue won his party’s nomination and then bested Democrat Michelle Nunn in the general election.
The Democratic race could wind up featuring two candidates with sharply different strategies. In his 2014 run, Carter aimed to capture 30 percent of the white vote by winning over disaffected independents who had fled to the GOP. Abrams, meanwhile, built an organization that has sought to maximize Democratic turnout by registering hundreds of thousands of new minority voters.
If the past three elections in Georgia teach us anything, though, it is that Peach State politics are impossible to predict.
Deal seemed like an also-ran in the 2010 primary before scrapping his way into a hard-fought runoff. Perdue came out of relative obscurity with the help of his cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, and his political network to take an open U.S. Senate seat. And Trump scored a 5-point victory last week in Georgia — while losing the long-held GOP bastions of Cobb and Gwinnett counties.
A GOP jumble
Long before Tuesday’s surprising vote, Republican strategists were preparing their candidates for governor to rail against Hillary Clinton, who is wildly unpopular in Georgia’s GOP base, and eager to tie a Democratic opponent to her administration. With Trump’s win, though, many high-profile Republicans are rethinking their options.
Price, a Roswell surgeon who won his seventh term in Congress last week, had been throwing money at down-ticket state races this year in what many viewed as a signal he was running. He even started a new independent committee with an acronym of his last name to support his favorite candidates.
But now that he might have a chance to play a key role in dismantling President Barack Obama’s health care law, long his top target in Congress, he might be more willing to stay in Washington. He declined to comment on a bid for governor in an interview last week.
Other early Trump supporters have tough decisions to make. Perdue, long seen as a long shot to run for governor, could be up for a Cabinet post or could serve in a more influential role in the U.S. Senate. And Kingston, another early Trump supporter, will have to decide whether to stick with his high-paying lobbying job, seek a role in a Trump administration or pursue a return to elective office.
“Sometimes stepping back a little bit and going outside the normal political infrastructure gives you the view and perspective we all need,” Kingston said, reflecting on his transformation from consummate Washington insider to a leading surrogate for an anti-establishment president.
“Let’s just say that I am a constant student of the political thinking going on out there,” he added. “Trump heard a voice out there that was underserved, and it brought out a record shift.”
More conventional candidates also face a different sort of calculus. Kemp earned more exposure in Washington as an expert on ballot security, and he could try to leverage that role in a statewide contest. And Cagle earlier this year made a case for how a veteran politician can learn from Trump’s mystique.
“The reason people are disenfranchised and throw their hands up (is) they don’t see government working,” said Cagle, a three-term lieutenant governor. “And Donald Trump has tapped into the anger. He speaks a language that many understand, and he’s not scripted in the way of a typical politician.”
Several other potential candidates could run as “outsiders” with the ability to finance their own races. State Sen. Burt Jones, a Jackson Republican who could not immediately be reached for comment, is said to be considering a bid. So is state Sen. Michael Williams, a Cumming millionaire who was the first elected state official in Georgia to endorse Trump.
“He has a bright future and has proven to be someone willing to make a stand even when it isn’t the popular thing to do,” said Seth Weathers, a Williams adviser who was also Trump’s first Georgia campaign director. “I think Georgia would be happy to have someone like that represent them in any office.”
‘A change electorate’
Democrats haven’t held the Georgia Governor’s Mansion since 2002, but some see the 2018 contest as an alluring opening. The race takes place in an off-year election following the victory of a Republican presidential candidate — typically a good year for the party out of power.
“It’s a change electorate, and that doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of calming down anytime soon,” said Jeff DiSantis, a veteran Democratic strategist. “And if you’re a Georgia Democrat running against state Capitol Republicans, we’ve been out of power for so long we can position ourselves as the change agent.”
A wealthy outsider with no political experience could also run on the Democratic side of the ticket, though the party’s history warns against it. Other deep-pocketed Georgia Democrats, including Cliff Oxford and Michael Coles, failed to win office running as nontraditional candidates. And Jim Barksdale, a Buckhead investment manager, barely topped 40 percent of the vote last week in his U.S. Senate bid despite pumping more than $3 million of his own fortune into his campaign.
With Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed apparently out of the running — he repeated last week that Trump’s victory has not changed his mind to sit out the 2018 race — Carter and Abrams are the party’s likely front-runners.
Abrams said in a statement she was focused on the 2017 legislative session, when Democrats will face divisive policy debates over health care, firearms and “religious liberty” legislation. And Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, said in an interview that it was too early for him to talk about his next step. But he did suggest he was already contemplating a message.
“Republicans are going to be stuck with the most unpopular president ever,” Carter said. “Do Republicans want to be the party of Donald Trump? Is that really what they want? I frankly don’t think so.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.