ATLANTA — Tuesday’s bruising gubernatorial runoff in Georgia is testing the loyalty of Republican voters to President Donald Trump and their continuing appetite for rejecting the establishment in favor of bare-knuckled outsider politics.
The matchup between Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle pits the White House, which backs Kemp, against outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who backs Cagle. Democrat Stacey Abrams awaits the winner in the fall, seeking to become the first black female governor of any American state.
A well-known figure at the Georgia Capitol, Cagle entered the Republican race as the presumed front-runner, with financial backing from much of the state’s lobbying class. Even as a statewide elected official, Kemp positioned himself as a “politically incorrect conservative” outsider perpetually battling liberal Democrats and Republican insiders.
Both Republicans have tried to align themselves with Trump, while taking hard lines on immigration, guns and social issues. But as both men swung to the right during the extended Republican contest, Cagle has been widely viewed as the candidate most likely to tack to the center in a general election campaign. The question is whether such apparent moderation is a liability that will prevent him from getting past Republican primary voters Kemp courted with ads featuring guns, chain saws and a pickup truck to “round up criminal illegals.”
Cagle led the initial five-man primary in May, but fell well shy of the majority required to avoid a runoff. The two months since have been a cascade of problems for the veteran politician, and public polls suggest Kemp has closed the gap.
Nichole Jacobs went to Sandy Springs Christian Church to vote Tuesday for Kemp, citing his stance on immigration. Jacobs sends both her children to private schools, and feels her affluent Atlanta suburb is overrun with “illegal immigration.”
“People are moving out of Sandy Springs to get into a better school district or putting their kids in private schools,” Jacobs said.
Ron Rosen, 80, has lived in Sandy Springs for over four decades where he is a doctor. He cast his vote for Cagle because he wasn’t impressed by Kemp’s ads. Rosen felt Kemp’s advertisements were too focused on mudslinging rather than what he was going to do for Georgia if elected. Cagle proved himself, Rosen said.
“Cagle did come up with positive things,” Rosen said. “I wanted to hear about what someone was going to do.”
Cagle, however, unwittingly played into Kemp’s framing when he was secretly recorded earlier this year by a former rival who captured the lieutenant governor explaining in detail that he steered legislation in the state Senate based on campaign contributions. Another clip Kemp released revealed Cagle describing the GOP contest as a race to be “the craziest” candidate with “the biggest gun” and “the biggest truck.”
Trump’s unexpected endorsement of Kemp last week, followed by a weekend visit from Vice President Mike Pence, threw the race into overdrive. Tuesday morning, both Trump and Pence rallied support for Kemp on Twitter.
“Today is the day to vote for Brian Kemp. Will be great for Georgia, full Endorsement!” the president tweeted.
It’s a matter of risk-and-reward for Georgia Republicans and Trump, who was burned last year when he twice backed losing Senate candidates in neighboring Alabama. Kemp offers Trump a chance to back another brash politician who can carry the president’s brand in a state the president won in 2016. But that alliance also alarms some GOP players, who are wary about Georgia’s changing electorate and a national mood that favors Democrats — potentially giving Democrats an opening in a state the GOP has dominated at the polls for the last two decades.
Those concerns became evident when Deal, a broadly popular figure, weighed in with his own 11th hour endorsement for Cagle, touting him as an able business-recruiting partner and his best potential successor. The move stood out for a governor previously content to leave party faithful to their own choices.
Georgia elects its governor and lieutenant governor independently, so Cagle was never part of Deal’s ticket, though they both hail from the same north Georgia town of Gainesville.
The National Rifle Association also threw its weight behind Cagle in April after he helped kill a tax break benefiting Delta Air Lines, one of the state’s largest employers, after the company ended a discount program for NRA members. Oliver North, president-elect of the gun-rights group, joined Cagle on campaign stops in Savannah, Kennesaw and Gainesville.
Polls remain open Tuesday until 7 p.m. Early in-person voting began July 2.
Associated Press writer Brinley Hineman in Sandy Springs, Georgia, contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this report had an erroneous reference to “Chris” Cagle.