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Hall County native Casey Cagle aims to avoid runoff in Republican governor primary
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State Sen. Butch Miller, right, introduces Casey Cagle, left, at the lieutenant governor’s final stop in his hometown of Gainesville after a daylong flight touching down in eight towns in Georgia. - photo by Nick Bowman

Casey Cagle will wake up on Tuesday and win Georgia’s Republican governor primary election.

No one ever doubted that Georgia’s longtime lieutenant governor, born in Gainesville and raised in Hall County, would come out on top on Tuesday. With almost 100 percent of voters recognizing his name and more than twice the campaign cash of anyone else in the race, Cagle’s four other major challengers haven’t raced for first place; even the day before the election, they proclaim they’re happily “surging” into second place.

Cagle will win — but will he win by enough?

If Cagle, 52, doesn’t get a majority of votes cast in the primary, he’s bound for a runoff against the second-place finisher. That’s why former state Sen. Hunter Hill, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and businessman Clay Tippins have all made the case that they’re the only ones who can topple the lieutenant governor in a July runoff — a runoff is their only hope.

And it’s the only worry for the Cagle camp this year, confident that Democratic challengers don’t pose any threat in Georgia.

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Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, right, and his wife, Nita Cagle, laugh at the Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport after exiting the jet that ferried them around Georgia the day before the Tuesday primary. - photo by Nick Bowman
But fresh from eight campaign stops around Georgia, ferried around in a Cessna Citation jet, Cagle was calm in the crowded lobby of Champion Aviation at the Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville on Monday night, May 21.

More than 20 people gathered in the space to welcome Cagle back to Gainesville, including Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan and state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who introduced Cagle to the hometown crowd, and several members of Cagle’s family.

“We look forward to tomorrow and to gettin’ her done,” Miller said to cheers.

Cagle himself stuck to his message dialed in through dozens of campaign stops around Georgia.

He talked about his economic plan, the financial condition of state government and his record in the legislature, but the speech and comments to The Times afterward also reflected the issues emerging late in the campaign.

“A workforce that is second to none has to be our greatest priority, and every able-bodied individual needs to be at work. They don’t need to be on government welfare, I can tell you,” Cagle said to loud applause. “I believe in a safety net for society, but that safety net does not need to become a hammock for people to rest in.”

That line earned Cagle one of his heartiest applauses of the night, and work requirements for welfare programs is just one of the issues on which Cagle has emphasized his conservative credentials.

It’s a rightward turn for the candidate who launched his campaign with the help of Atlanta broadcaster and Democrat Monica Pearson in Duluth.

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Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan, right, wishes Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle luck on Monday at the Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport before Tuesday’s Republican primary. - photo by Nick Bowman
Immigration and gun rights have come to the forefront of the governor’s race, with Kemp launching the opening salvo in the fight for the right wing of the party with two ads featurings guns, explosions and pickup trucks. State Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, followed up with a “Deportation Bus” for immigrants in the country illegally.

Cagle himself highlighted his involvement in a legal dispute with the city of Decatur, which was found to have overly hospitable policies to people in the country illegally.

“I took Decatur to the immigration enforcement review board, which is an administrative court, and we just got a ruling out … in my favor,” Cagle told The Times after the event.

But at the heart of Cagle’s campaign is the very thing that many of his challengers believe is a weakness: Cagle has been working in state government for years from his perch as president of the state Senate.

In his remarks to voters around the state and to media, Cagle emphasizes his expertise within the system — what others might call his tenure as a “career politician.” But the lieutenant governor argues that the Georgia economy, one of the 10 largest economies in the nation, needs a practiced, steady hand at the tiller in the years ahead.

“The position of being governor is a CEO position,” Cagle told his audience, jumping into his plans to cut taxes and create jobs.

And with a message laid on the table — that he’s the next chapter in conservative, but realist, leadership for Georgia after Gov. Nathan Deal — Cagle called it a night in Gainesville.

“There is nothing like coming home,” he said.

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Jeannette Liotta, Casey Cagle’s mother, sports a Cagle hat she picked up from a Republican Party event in metro Atlanta earlier this year at her son’s final campaign stop in Gainesville on Monday before the Tuesday gubernatorial primary. - photo by Nick Bowman