Georgia’s governor’s race begins soon.

Georgia’s governor’s race begins soon.

By Hastings Wyman –

When the Georgia legislature finishes up on March 30, candidates for governor in the 2018 election are expected to begin their campaigns in earnest. With Governor Nathan Deal (R) term-limited, there is an open seat and interest in the race is high, especially on the Republican side.

The most likely candidate is Lt. Casey Cagle (R), 51, the early frontrunner. Cagle has already amassed a significant war chest – a reported $3 million on hand or pledged. He has written a book, “Education Unleashed,” published last September, which puts forth a plan to transform public school education, a theme he may well make the centerpiece of his campaign.

Other major political GOPers are also expected to run for governor. Secretary of State Brian Kemp is finishing up his second term in that office and is likely to seek to move up to the governorship. Kemp, 53, addressed the National Federation of Independent Businesses in Athens last month, and said he would like to see more “business-minded people in office.” He stressed the need to reduce regulations. He has been a real estate developer and “Kemp Means Business” has been his slogan. He is from Athens. Like Cagle, he has name ID from running statewide before.

Former US Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R) has held office in Peach State politics, either in the legislature of Congress, for 24 years. He has not made any concrete moves toward a run for governor. At age 67, now is probably the last year he could run for governor. But he may decide he has had his fill of elective politics.

Two current – and younger – US Representatives (R) also get mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidates. Austin Scott, 47, is from Augusta; Tom Graves, also 47, formerly in landscaping and real estate development, is from the Dalton area.

Two state senators (R) have also been mentioned as potential candidates for governor, or perhaps another statewide office. Burton Jones, a former University of Georgia football player, has some money and some name ID. He could run for governor or possibly lieutenant governor. And Josh McKoon, who has announced he will not seek reelection to the state senate, could run for governor, or possibly attorney general. Says political scientist Charles “Chuck” Bullock, a University of Georgia professor, McKoon “is pretty far to the right and has been willing to criticize the Republican leadership,” which could be a plus, or a minus.

There are four names getting attention on the Democratic side. First among them is former state Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of Jimmy Carter. Jason Carter lost a gubernatorial bid in 2014, garnering 45% of the vote against Gov. Deal. He has not indicated he will run again, but he has not ruled it out either. Says Bullock, “His grandfather ran twice, winning the second time.”

A second possibility on the Democratic side is Minority House Leader Stacey Abrams. She could be strong in the primary, appealing both to her fellow African Americans as well as to women.

A third candidate, one being courted by some Democrats, is Sally Yeats, remembered most recently as the Acting US Attorney General fired by President Trump after she order Justice Department employees not to enforce the President’s first executive order on immigration. But Yeats at this point has so far made no moves toward running. One complication might be that US Rep. John Lewis (D), an influential figure in Georgia Democratic politics, opposed President Obama’s appointment of her as a US Attorney, reportedly based on her leading the corruption investigation against Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, a friend of Lewis.

And the fourth is term-limited Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Reed has been a high-profile CEO for Atlanta. If he runs, he would be especially strong in the Democratic Primary, since Metro-Atlanta accounts for much of the Democratic vote. While African Americans have been elected statewide in the past – as state Supreme Court Chief Justice and as state Attorney General – no black candidate has won the governorship. Moreover, Reed has reportedly urged Yates to run.

Since the GOP’s majorities in both chambers of the legislature are likely to continue for the next several years, winning the governorship is crucial for Democrats if they are to have a seat at the table when redistricting occurs in 2021.

The Republicans are the early favorites, but not a lead-pipe cinch. Trump carried the state last year by 50% to Clinton’s 45%, a respectable but not an impressive victory. The GOP is likely to be helped by a traditional drop in turn-out in off year elections among minority voters, who constitute the Democrats’ base. Between 2012, when Obama was on the ballot, and 2016, when he was not, black turnout in Georgia declined by 42,000, while white turnout rose by about 89,000.

“It’s the Republicans to lose,” says Bullock, noting that Georgia did vote for Trump last year. He also points out that 1998 was the last time Georgia voted for a non-incumbent Democrat. And since 2011, no Democrat has held a statewide office. Their best showing was in 2008, when Obama headed the Democratic ticket, which boosted black turnout. Democrat Jim Martin forced Republican Saxby Chambliss into a runoff, which Chambliss won.

As for President Trump’s influence in 2018, “I don’t know,” says Bullock. “It depends on what he does,” adding that for now, Republican candidates might want to keep their distance from him.