Peach State Republicans will go back to the polls on July 24 for a runoff to pick their candidate for governor in the November election. A field of five contenders was narrowed down to two in the May 22 primary, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the early favorite who is now in a dog fight, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, formerly a successful businessman.
Cagle was raised by a single mother in a trailer in North Georgia. He grew up to be a six-foot cornerback at Georgia Southern. Despite his hardscrabble beginnings, he was “the smart-money, establishment pick for governor,” said The Daily Dose blog. “At least he was” until two scandals put him on the defensive.
Some ten years ago Cagle bought a condo for his three sons, who were attending Georgia State University. The New York Times recently reported that he bought it from a lobbyist for $97,000, while it was appraised for $127,800. The lobbyist and Cagle contend it was a “legitimate transaction,” and the lower price reflected the 2008 crash in housing prices. Kemp has also hit Cagle for excessive use of state planes, especially to drop him off in his hometown of Gainesville.
The other scandal is that Cagle contacted Clay Tippins, a former Navy SEAL and one of the losing candidates from the first round, to ask for his support. Cagle told him that a piece of legislation he had supported was bad public policy, but he did it to head off another candidate. Unbeknownst to Cagle, Tippins taped the conversation.
“The backstory is that there is much more on the Tippins tape, “ says Chuck Clay, former state Republican chairman. Tippins supposedly asked Cagle about a sexual rumor involving the lieutenant governor and Cagle reportedly said, “Let them try to prove it.”
“It was something that occurred long ago,” says Clay, and it “doesn’t matter.” Nevertheless, “people are waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
The two scandals “have taken some of the air out of Cagle’s balloon,” says Chuck Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Cagle, however, has also gone on the offensive, with attack ads pointing out that Kemp accidentally released the Social Security numbers of all Georgia voters and that Kemp is several hundred thousand dollars in debt. Cagle’s ads call Kemp “untrustworthy” and “incompetent.”
“There is more damage for Cagle,” says Bullock, “because his are new skeletons, so they get news coverage. Kemp’s scandals are old, so the media no longer covers them.”
Cagle had a reasonably good lead – nearly 14 points – in the first round but that lead has all but disappeared. The latest poll showed Cagle ahead 44% to 43%, essentially dead even. The Kemp campaign released its own with a similar result – 45% each. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will release another poll on July 15.
“It’s a real horse race,” says Clay. “There is a slight advantage for Cagle, mainly because he led in the metropolitan areas,” which are more compact and easier to turn out voters in the runoff through advertisements and organization. Cagle has “an extensive network of locally elected officials and law enforcement personnel who have endorsed him.” He also held a business round table with Steve Forbes in Atlanta, at which Forbes said, “Casey Cagle is absolutely the man to keep Georgia’s economy humming.”
Cagle also has some plusses for rural voters, who tend to be more socially conservative. He supports “religious freedom” legislation, considered discriminatory by critics, and anti-LGBT adoptions proposals. In February, after Delta Airlines ended its association with the National Rifle Association in response to the Lakeland, Florida school massacre, Cagle killed tax legislation that would have benefited Delta. More positively, he wants to expand broadband access in rural areas.
Kemp relied mainly on the rural vote, which may be harder to turn out in the runoff. In the primary campaign, Kemp caught flak for his TV spot where he appeared to be pointing a shot-gun at a would-be suiter of his daughter. Despite the criticism, the controversial spot gave Kemp a substantial boost. He has reprised that ad in a milder version geared to gun owners, who are mainly in rural areas. The ad also says that Cagle is attacking Kemp because he’s “a proud, hard-core Trump conservative” and because “Cagle is in a major corruption scandal and dropping like a rock in the polls.”
Says Clay, “Kemp has to uptick his message… Something’s got to change for Kemp to cross the line. He has to get out a positive message himself, in addition to the slash & burn” attacks on Cagle.
The winner will face former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, in the General Election.