On a sweltering Friday in late June, Gov. Nathan Deal huddled inside a bank boardroom with some of Hall County’s most prominent business leaders. The three dozen people knew exactly what was coming: a heart-to-heart with the governor on the race to succeed him.
During his eight years in office, the center of Georgia’s political universe gravitated to Hall. And, Deal told his longtime allies, if they wanted the county to retain its outsized influence, they needed to step up for fellow native Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in this month’s runoff.
The meeting, described by several participants who requested anonymity to describe a confidential discussion, did not amount to a formal endorsement of Cagle. Deal has remained publicly neutral in the race.
But it was a reflection of how Cagle’s home county — the linchpin to his plans for the Governor’s Mansion — is no safe harbor in the July 24 contest against Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Hall doesn’t seem like precarious ground for Cagle. He grew up in the county and launched his political career here when he was 28, knocking off a Democratic incumbent in the state Senate.
He’s so tied to this area, where he recently built a house, that he tells crowds he’ll split time between Atlanta and Gainesville if elected.
But racking up big margins here is no given. Strong support for Kemp, who hails from Athens, helped keep Cagle below 50 percent in Hall during the May primary. And Kemp is not conceding any ground, including making several recent visits to Gainesville to stoke the network of supporters he’s long cultivated.
Cagle may not have much wiggle room here. While the biggest trove of runoff votes will come from metro Atlanta’s suburbs, Cagle’s expecting a strong showing in Hall to separate himself from Kemp in a tight race. And both candidates need look no further than Deal as an example.
The governor won 64 percent of Hall’s vote in a crowded 2010 GOP field, helping him gain barely enough votes to qualify for the No. 2 spot in the runoff. In the second round of balloting, turnout actually increased in Hall — a rare feat — and Deal pulled in nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Without that tremendous support from his home county, Deal would not be in the Governor’s Mansion. He outpolled his opponent, Karen Handel, by about 12,000 votes in Hall — enough to help him beat her overall by roughly 2,500 ballots.
Cagle enjoys a much heftier fundraising advantage, front-runner status and wider statewide name recognition than Deal had in 2010. But he also lacks the constituent services network that Deal built across Hall and northeast Georgia during nearly two decades of representing the region in the U.S. House.
Both campaigns are digging in. Kemp said he’s tapped decades-long friendships in Hall and Republican stalwarts in the area “who want a governor who is going to put them first.”
“We have the best base, and that pays off in the runoff,” Kemp said of his support in Hall. “It’s too late to start trying to build a grass-roots campaign with two weeks before the vote.”
Cagle is fortifying his backyard. He has assigned a campaign operative whose sole responsibility is to boost Hall turnout. And he is leveraging one of his biggest advantages over Kemp to turn out votes: The National Rifle Association’s president-elect, Oliver North, will join Cagle at a fish fry in Gainesville on Saturday to rally conservatives.
“Casey goes home to Hall County every night, and our campaign is working there every day. We need a strong turnout and lopsided victory for the native son,” said Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley, who said voters there won’t be swayed by “Kemp’s fake news personal attacks on him.”
‘The one from Hall’
A drive through Gainesville, the county’s seat, is full of reminders this is Cagle’s hometown. There are Cagle campaign signs lining Jesse Jewell Parkway through the heart of the community, and more are hanging in front of the churches, banks and office buildings dotting downtown.
His supporters often mention that hometown pull. Although the two haven’t been especially close over the years, Deal and Cagle made a formidable one-two punch for local issues. A third Gainesville politico, state Sen. Butch Miller, was recently elected to a coveted Senate leadership position.
And the community has reaped the benefits. The state has supported a string of Hall projects, including a stalled reservoir, a new local campus for Lanier Technical College and a sophisticated poultry lab that was in the works before his election.
Cagle’s local-boy status creeped into interviews with more than a dozen voters. Daniel Weiss, who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat as he cast a ballot for Cagle at a Gainesville early-voting site, invoked the hometown appeal.
“I’m supporting Cagle because I know him and his previous record,” he said. “Kemp — I just don’t know. And I haven’t even looked at the Democrat candidate.”
Kim Walker said much the same as she prepared to vote for the lieutenant governor: “We’re voting for the one from Hall County. I trust him. To me, it’s about electing a governor who’s firm, fair and consistent.”
Others said Kemp’s outsider appeal impressed them more than Cagle’s hometown roots. Though Kemp has held statewide office since 2010, he’s tried to position himself as a disrupter of the political status quo — and that helped win over Robert Bell.
“I don’t want an establishment-type person. We’re sort of tired of it,” said Bell, who said he voted for “someone who has a kind of different approach — someone who’s got some morals.”
That’s the same sentiment that drove Bobby Banks, an ex-GOP county commissioner, into Kemp’s arms. He outlined years’ worth of gripes with Cagle, including snubs at a local diner and refusals to help his erstwhile allies once he was elected to state office.
“When something better comes along, he kind of forgets you,” Banks said. “We know Cagle too well. That’s the reason 50 percent of the people here don’t like him.”
Both campaigns are anxiously watching for signs of a Deal endorsement, which could be particularly influential in Hall County. In an interview, Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’s stayed neutral so far because he’s “tried to let them run their own campaigns.”
“But I do have an interest in trying to make sure that whoever my successor is does not go in and undo and destroy many of the great advances that we’ve made,” he said. “That is my primary concern.”
Staff writer Matt Kempner contributed to this article.