The ugly and close race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Georgia has become even more heated. Last Wednesday, with less than a week before the primary runoff election, President Trump unexpectedly endorsed Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state.
“Brian is tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration,” Trump tweeted. “He loves our Military and our Vets and protects our Second Amendment. I give him my full and total endorsement.”
And the president is popular with Republicans in Georgia. Ahead of the Tuesday primary, 21 percent of likely Republican primary voters said their main reason for casting a ballot is to support the stronger ally of Trump, according to a recent poll conducted by the University of Georgia for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Kemp and his opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, have outlined few differences on policy. They are both vocal supporters of Trump.
But over the weekend, at a hastily thrown rally in central Georgia, Vice President Pence tried to erase any lingering doubts that Kemp is Trump’s pick. He told the crowd Trump asked him to come and speak.
“Brian Kemp will bring the kind of leadership to the statehouse that President Donald Trump has brought to the White House,” Pence said to a cheering crowd in Macon, Ga., about an hour south of Atlanta.
One voter at the rally, Deb Phillips, said Trump’s endorsement made her more confident in her support of Kemp.
“When he endorsed him, I knew I was on the right train,” said Phillips, a resident of the small city of Thomasville, Ga., along the border with Florida.
“I’d been on the Trump train, so now I’m on the Kemp train,” she said.
Kemp said he was caught off guard when he heard of Trump’s endorsement while giving a press conference on a different subject last week.
“Everybody started jumping around and they’re looking at their phones,” Kemp said. “I was like ‘What in the world is going on?’ I felt like it was good because everybody was smiling.”
This is not the first time Trump has picked favorites in Republican primary contests. He endorsed Rep. Ron DeSantis in the Florida governor race.
And in June, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster won the GOP primary for governor in that state after Trump held a campaign event for him.
But Terry Scarborough, another Georgia voter, was frustrated by Trump’s endorsement.
He attended a Cagle rally at The Redneck Gourmet, a restaurant in Newnan, Ga., where fried bologna sandwiches and fried green tomatoes are on the menu.
“I think the president got lied to,” Scarborough said. “I am 100 percent behind him and what he believes in. There’s no doubt about it, but Brian Kemp is not President Trump, and President Trump doesn’t even know him.”
Apart from what he described in his tweet, no other motivation for Trump’s endorsement of Kemp has clearly emerged.
Cagle said in an interview that his campaign was in communication with the White House, but he wasn’t aware the endorsement of Kemp was coming.
“We were told, obviously, that [Trump] was not going to endorse,” Cagle said. “I’m still a supporter of the president. I think he’s doing a good job in Washington and he’s the right guy for the time. But again, this has nothing to do with Washington and has everything to do with Georgia.”
For months, Cagle was the favorite to win the Republican nomination.
He drew 40 percent of the vote during the first round of the primary in May (to win a Georgia election requires 50 percent plus one vote), while Kemp drew only 25 percent.
A pair of controversial ads that aired near the end of the primary’s first round boosted Kemp’s campaign. In one, Kemp points a shotgun in the direction of a young man who, at least for the purposes of the ad, wants to date one of his daughters. Another ad titled “So Conservative” features an explosion, a chainsaw, and a pickup truck, “Just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself,” Kemp says.
Adding with a smile: “Yup, I just said that.”
But the runoff has been dominated by the release of secret recordings of Cagle. In one, he says he pushed a bill for private school scholarships through the state legislature, even though it was bad “a thousand different ways,” and that he backed the bill to keep a $3 million donation away from an opponent.
In the following weeks, the Kemp campaign released additional, short clips of Cagle including one in which Cagle says, “this primary felt it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck and who could be the craziest,” an apparent reference to Kemp’s TV ads.
Cagle has not apologized for anything he said in the recording, and since then, has even tried to sell himself to voters as a fighter.
“I’m crazy, OK?” Cagle said when asked about his statements on the secret recording. “I’m crazy. I’m crazy about Georgia, I’m crazy about my wife, I’m crazy about a lot of things.”
“Do I think that some of the ads that have been run are crazy? Yeah, I do,” he added. “And I think most Georgians feel the same way. We have not had a sensible conversation about the real issues confronting the state of Georgia.”
Cagle has leveled his own attacks on Kemp for accepting more than $300,000 in donations from companies and individuals he regulates as secretary of state.
“The only person that has been trading anything for money is the secretary of state,” Cagle said during a debate.
For his part, Kemp said he hasn’t done anything wrong, and he has returned donations his campaign received that were illegal because of his position as secretary of state.
The secret recording, and Kemp’s campaign finances, have led allies of both candidates to call for federal investigations, but no investigations have been announced.
Abrams prepares for November
The winner of the GOP primary will face Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams in the November election.
Abrams is a former minority leader in the Georgia state House, and if she wins, would be the first African-American, female governor in the country.
As Kemp and Cagle attack each other, Abrams’ campaign has been fundraising, gathering volunteers and canvassing voters.
She has even appeared on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Both Cagle and Kemp have indicated they’re the only candidates who can defeat Abrams in November.
Whoever wins the GOP nomination on Tuesday will be bruised and at least a little damaged, but the Republican Party in Georgia is looking to heal all wounds as quickly as possible. It has a unity event planned for Thursday and says both Kemp and Cagle will attend.