Casey Cagle is a “puppet,” and Brian Kemp is “incompetent” — barbs were flying almost instantly after the dust settled around Tuesday’s Republican gubernatorial primary.
Georgia Republicans should prepare for a bloody runoff between Lt. Gov. Cagle and Secretary of State Kemp as the two men scramble for their party’s nomination to face Democrat Stacey Abrams in the November general election.
Cagle closed Tuesday with just shy of 40 percent of the vote statewide, while Kemp pulled in more than 25 percent. The two candidates emerged as clear favorites among the pack of five men running for the Republican nomination.
There’s a wider gulf between them than separated Gov. Nathan Deal and Karen Handel when the pair faced each other in the 2010 Republican runoff in the governor’s race (Deal finished about 11 percent behind Handel in the primary and edged her in the runoff).
But that won’t stop both men from viciously racing to the finish line on July 24 — and Georgians got a taste of what’s to come on Wednesday, May 23.
Cagle let loose his first few conspicuous blows against Kemp in an afternoon announcement to media, saying that his accomplishments offer a “stark contrast” to those of Kemp.
The lieutenant governor talked up his record working with Deal — who figures prominently in the announcement — before turning on Kemp.
“As Cagle moved the state forward, any Georgian who votes, owns a business or gets a professional license has suffered at the hands of Kemp’s incompetent management, from the release of voters’ Social Security numbers to constant office failures that make it difficult to renew a business or professional license,” the announcement states.
Cagle could not be reached for comment by The Times by deadline on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Kemp came out hard against Cagle a celebratory speech Tuesday night in Athens, where he labeled Cagle a “puppet” who is beholden to special interests and has “twisted every arm at the state Capitol he could find.”
On Wednesday, Kemp told The Times he believed Cagle’s support in the state was “an acre wide and an inch deep” based on his performance in the primary.
A bitter runoff between the two could be bad news for the GOP in November, said Douglas Young, a professor of political science at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.
“Cagle and Kemp need to be very careful that this runoff does not get so nasty or bitterly divisive that whoever loses, his supporters will simply say, ‘Well, I’m going to stay home,’” Young said on Wednesday. “Remember, Abrams, she doesn’t have another election until early November.”
The Georgia Republican Party is running interference for whoever emerges from the runoff. Before midnight on Tuesday, the party went on the attack against Abrams for what it sees as two major vulnerabilities: Abrams’ left-wing positions taken during the Democratic primary and her financial past.
“I’ve tried to make sense of her personal and professional finances, and my head is spinning,” said GOP Chairman John Watson in an announcement. “The only way for voters to get clarity on a growing list of ethical issues concerning her finances is to see her tax returns and payment history for her entire tenure in the state legislature.”
While the GOP takes aim at Abrams, Cagle and Kemp are also trying to clean up votes cast for their former competitors Hunter Hill, Clay Tippins and Michael Williams.
Kemp noted that 60 percent of voters picked someone other than Cagle on Tuesday, giving him plenty of room to maneuver in a field open to voting for a non-establishment figure.
While Kemp adopted culture war issues like immigration and gun rights as major themes of his campaign late in the primary, he’s returning to an economic and populist message in the runoff with his “Georgians First” message focusing on rural development.
Asked whether he’s in talks with the other three candidates about possible endorsements, Kemp told The Times he’s “in talks with anybody who didn’t vote for us last night. I want to be everybody’s second choice. I think that’s an interesting point from last night: Over 60 percent of the people who voted last night rejected the career politician and are really looking for something different. We’re trying to get all of them, including the people who were on the ballot last night.”
Cagle is making his own conservative pitch for voters who broke for Hill, Tippins and Williams — all candidates who did their best to roast Cagle in the primary.
“To the Georgians who strongly supported Hunter Hill, Clay Tippins or Michael Williams, let’s talk,” Cagle said in the announcement. “I want to be your candidate if you share my vision for cutting taxes, training our workforce, creating high-paying jobs, fighting illegal immigration, protecting gun rights, promoting a culture that values life and defending our Christian values.”
Gov. Deal and his record in office will be a sensitive subject in the runoff. Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, has been protective of the governor’s record in office in statements made to Atlanta media and online. In a comment reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Riley said “One thing is certain: If Gov. Deal’s agenda or record is used against a candidate in a runoff, the governor will be there to defend and protect.”
Riley has also made comments favorable to Cagle and his work with Deal while in office, and both Deal and Cagle are from Hall County.
Kemp praised Deal’s record while talking to The Times, saying the governor has done great things — but that his record is not Cagle’s record.
“He had his own agenda that he wanted to work on,” Kemp said of Deal. “He’s in a really good position to move the legislature along with him. You’ve got to remember, at times when Gov. Deal was in office, Casey Cagle wasn’t in control of the state Senate — he’d had his power stripped away.”
While Kemp is playing the outside and arguing that Deal’s good record doesn’t win Cagle points, the strong economic condition of the state could cut against any anti-establishment sentiments in the runoff.
“I have not heard anybody criticize Deal or Cagle — particularly not along the lines of, ‘We’ve got to throw all the incumbents out,’” Young said. “I just don’t hear that, and I’ve not read where anybody is showing polling data or any evidence that there’s going to be a big anti-incumbency this fall as far as the state House and state Senate are concerned.”