Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle tried to minimize the damage to his race for governor after President Donald Trump’s endorsement of his rival. The White House tried to make sure that didn’t happen. And Secretary of State Brian Kemp shifted his focus beyond Tuesday’s vote.
It was a weekend of furious campaigning across the state, as the two Republicans hurtling toward the runoff tried to mobilize their supporters and sway undecided voters. In what’s expected to be a low-turnout race, a few thousand ballots could swing the election.
Trump’s surprise tweet endorsing Kemp transformed him from an underdog into a front-runner, and at campaign stops around the state he acted like it. The full-scale attacks on Cagle, long a staple of his campaign, were replaced with pledges that he’ll defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.
He had plenty of backup from his newest supporters. He appeared Saturday with Vice President Mike Pence, who said Kemp would bring Trump-like leadership to Georgia’s top office. And Trump sent a second tweet offering his “full endorsement” to a candidate who is “very strong on crime and borders.”
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Cagle countered by relentlessly tying himself to Gov. Nathan Deal, who endorsed him last week. At a Sunday event in Auburn, he tried to downplay the president’s snub, saying that Georgians don’t “need someone else deciding who our governor’s going to be.”
“There are two gold-star endorsements in the race,” he told a crowd of about 50 supporters gathered in a sweltering park. “One, of course, is President Trump. But the other is Governor Deal.”
Meanwhile, Abrams prepared for the spotlight to refocus on the general election once the GOP nominee is settled. Her campaign sent a note to supporters Sunday warning that the GOP “will be all-in here in Georgia, pouring millions of dollars into their nominee’s campaign” to stop her.
For Kemp, the final days of the race gave him a last chance to remind Republicans of Trump’s support – and cast Cagle as an also-ran.
At his rally with Pence in Macon on Saturday, he didn’t mention the lieutenant governor’s name, a stark shift after weeks of assailing Cagle over a secretly made recording that captured him acknowledging he supported “bad public policy” for political reasons.
Instead, Kemp framed himself as the only candidate who can energize Republican voters in November to defeat Abrams, who has staked her campaign on mobilizing Democrats who rarely cast ballots by campaigning on left-leaning policies. And Kemp’s supporters echoed his approach.
Barbara Bryant, a Lizella retiree, was already supporting Kemp before Trump’s endorsement. But now, she said, voting for the secretary of state takes on more significance.
“We want to stand behind Trump, and that’s a way to do it,” she said. “I see this as a way to show our support for the president – he needs all the help he can get.”
Ditto for Mike Fuller, a Macon retiree who said he’s unimpressed with talk that the race has become a proxy battle between Trump and Deal. Though the governor endorsed Cagle after an unrelated speech last week, he hasn’t headlined any rallies or events for the lieutenant governor.
“So Cagle gets the governor who is going out of office. And Kemp gets the president and vice president,” said Fuller. “Shall I say it? Cagle got trumped. He’s been running scared for a while, and there’s enough Republican support to put (Kemp) over the top.”
It’s still unclear why Trump sided with Kemp, but analysts point to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor who appointed Kemp to the state’s top elections post in 2010. His aides and his first-cousin, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, have denied any involvement.
Even so, Pence may have stirred the pot – knowingly or unknowingly – as he revved up the crowd in Macon. He called Kemp the “real deal,” borrowing Deal’s campaign slogan, while touting Kemp as the best GOP choice for governor.
Cagle’s supporters took notice, though the lieutenant governor has refrained from taking any shots at Trump since he waded into the race. He’s walked a delicate line trying to energize the GOP base without alienating backers of Trump, who is highly popular among the conservatives who will decide the race.
Cagle’s closing message on the trail Sunday reflected the bind he was in. He said he wouldn’t predict why the president picked sides, but he added: “I will be a bulldog for the people of Georgia and not a lapdog for Washington.”
Cagle’s campaign is counting on fervent supporters who won’t leave the fold. Among them is Phil Dacosta, a Barrow County Republican who said he’s unshaken by poll numbers that show the lieutenant governor trailing Kemp.
“People who care about experienced leadership with a steady hand, those people will turn up at the polls and Casey’s going to win by a mile,” said Dacosta, who attended Cagle’s Auburn rally. “I don’t think Trump’s endorsement matters – most people can make their own decision.”
Kemp’s campaign is betting that he’s wrong, and quickly launched a final campaign ad focused on Trump’s support. And interviews with more than a dozen voters over the weekend revealed a handful who had switched their loyalties to Kemp in the last few days, or were seriously considering doing so.
That’s the fraught situation David Alexander is in. The Lawrenceville resident voted for Kemp in the May primary, largely because he wanted to see a runoff between him and Cagle. At the beginning of last week, he was leaning toward Cagle. But now, with Trump’s decision, he’s up in the air.
“The endorsements do sway me,” said Alexander. “There’s going to be lots of prayer in the next few days.”
Staff writer Maya Prabhu contributed to this article.