The departure of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle from next year’s governor’s race has touched off rampant speculation about potential Republican candidates for a variety of state offices.
In Hall County, which until Wednesday was considered solidly behind native son Cagle, the remaining gubernatorial candidates are getting ready to court some of Cagle’s largest financial backers.
While there are still three Republican hopefuls running to replace Sonny Perdue when his second term expires, the field could grow in the coming weeks after Cagle’s announcement turned the race on its head.
"It certainly does have a lot of people looking," House Majority Leader Jerry Keen told reporters Thursday.
Cagle said Wednesday he is withdrawing from the race to undergo surgery for a degenerative spine condition. He has said he will seek re-election as lieutenant governor.
Meanwhile, Cagle, who at last report has amassed a campaign war chest of $1.2 million, will now ask his contributors what to do with that money.
"We will reach out to our donors and discuss this decision with them on an individual basis and give them the opportunity to have the contribution returned or redesignated to the lieutenant governor’s campaign account," said Ryan Cassin, a spokesman for Cagle’s campaign.
The exit of Cagle, who led in early polling for governor, now has several Republicans talking opening about a potential candidacy.
Among those now believed to be eyeing the open seat are House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter of Johns Creek, state Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah and Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens.
Olens called Cagle’s announcement "a game changer."
"The events yesterday significantly increase the likelihood that I will enter the race," Olens said Thursday. He said he will announce his plans Tuesday.
Burkhalter could not immediately be reached for comment. He has led an unsuccessful effort to eliminate the ad valorem tax on cars.
Johnson already is running to replace Cagle as lieutenant governor. With Cagle staying put, he may set his set his sites instead on the governor’s mansion. He released a statement on Wednesday saying that he was keeping his options open.
Johnson pushed unsuccessfully this year to make Georgia the first state in the nation with a universal school voucher program.
If Johnson doesn’t jump in, another Savannah Republican, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, has suggested he might.
Already in the GOP race are Secretary of State Karen Handel, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and state Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton.
On the Democratic side, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former Georgia National Guard commander David Poythress are running.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who lost his re-election bid to Perdue in 2002, is also mulling the race and has said he will decide by early June.
The lure of an open governor’s seat is proving to be tempting to the state’s politically ambitious, who know such an opportunity doesn’t come along very often.
"I think I broke my single day phone call record yesterday, I had to recharge my cell phone twice in one day," Keen said Thursday. "I think you’re going to see a lot of jockeying over the next few weeks and months in both parties."
Keen had considered entering the race but decided against it. He said Thursday he stood by that decision.
Some members of Cagle’s inner circle, including Gainesville civic leaders Philip Wilheit and Jim Walters, are likely to be wooed by others in the race.
Walters, who made his fortune in the small loan business, already had given significant financial support to Oxendine, who also holds the title of industrial loan commissioner.
"I have not heard from anybody (in other campaigns)," Walters said. "But I have already been financially supporting Oxendine."
Walters had also been a major supporter of Cagle for governor and was a contributor to Cagle’s 2006 campaign for his current office.
Wilheit, who is known statewide for his work in economic development, is out of the country. His financial and political support will be sought by the remaining candidates.
This weekend, Republicans from the 9th Congressional District will gather in Jasper for their annual convention. The largest two counties in the district, Hall and Forsyth, were considered to be safe territory for Cagle, who had represented both as a state senator. Now, the area becomes fertile ground for announced and unannounced candidates who are expected at the convention this weekend.
"His announcement was a surprise to all of us," said Jim Pilgrim, chairman of the Hall County Republican Party. "Now we need to move forward."
Jack Chapman, a Gainesville ophthalmologist and past president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said he, too, was stunned by Cagle’s sudden announcement.
"We had just had a conference call on Friday about the campaign with a group that was talking about the planning for post-session," Chapman said. "This all happened very quickly."
Also a major Cagle donor and supporter, Chapman said he had not been contacted yet by any of the announced or rumored candidates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.