Bitter Battle Between GOP Rivals Comes to a Head in Georgia

In this July 12, 2018, photo, Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, left, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp shake hands after an Atlanta Press Club debate at Georgia Public Television in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

ATLANTA (CN) — The battle for the Republican nomination for governor of Georgia ends Tuesday as voters head to the polls to decide between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

The winner of Tuesday’s runoff election will face Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial election on November 6.

Cagle and Kemp emerged from a field of five Republican contenders to take the top two spots in the May 22 primary election. The two candidates have spent the nine weeks since then embroiled in a bitter tussle (complete with name-calling and leaked secret recordings) to prove which candidate is the most conservative.

Kemp, who adopted a “Georgia First” rallying cry to echo the Trump administration’s “America First” policies in international affairs, set the tone for the race with a slew of TV ads that feature him showing off various guns, announcing that he will use his “big truck” to “round up criminal illegals”, and brandishing a chain saw to “rip up some regulations.”

President Trump endorsed Kemp on July 18, tweeting, “Brian is tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration. He loves our Military and our Vets and protects our Second Amendment. I give him my full and total endorsement.”

President Trump’s endorsement could tip the scales in Kemp’s favor. A poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January showed the president’s approval rating at 81 percent among Georgia Republican voters.

A July 5-12 poll conducted by the University of Georgia for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 21 percent of Georgia Republicans said their main reason for voting in the runoff election is to support the stronger ally to President Trump.

Kemp, who finished second behind Cagle in the May 22 election, also received support from Vice President Mike Pence, who headlined a rally for Kemp in Macon, Ga. on July 21.

“Brian Kemp stands for Georgia values,” Pence said. “I believe that not only is he going to win come Tuesday, but he’s going to win in November.”

Kemp reportedly assured the crowd of 1,500 attendees that he would energize Republicans in November against Abrams because he’s a “Trump conservative who will put Georgians first.”

“I am tired of politically correct liberals like Stacey Abrams who are offended by our faith, our guns and our big trucks,” Kemp said. “This election is about trust. Who do you trust to do the right thing even when no one is looking?”

Kemp’s high-profile endorsements appear to have dealt a blow to Cagle, who was already trailing Kemp in the polls despite winning the endorsement of outgoing Governor Nathan Deal.

Cagle has struggled to deal with the fallout from a secret recording released in June that featured him saying he supported “bad public policy” to undercut a political rival.

The recording was secretly made and released by former GOP candidate for governor Clay Tippins. The audio allegedly reveals that Cagle supported a bill to raise the cap on tax credits for private school scholarships to prevent Republican state Senator Hunter Hill, a rival candidate in the May primary election, from getting a $3 million donation from a super PAC.

In the recording, Cagle explained his decision to push the bill through despite his misgivings, saying, “It ain’t about public policy. It’s about shit politics.”

In a statement defending his remarks, Cagle acknowledged that the bill “wasn’t perfect” but said lawmakers were able to reach “a broad agreement while no side got everything it wanted.”

A second recording surfaced on July 9 of Cagle allegedly discussing the GOP primary race. In the 50-second recording, which was released by Kemp’s campaign, Cagle says that the primary became about “who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest.”

A third recording revealed Cagle allegedly saying that Kemp’s ads target “a very rabid” audience.

Kemp’s campaign has used the recordings to paint Cagle as an elitist in order to create a clear separation between the candidates who, by all accounts, actually have very similar philosophies.

Cagle has hit back with attacks on Kemp for accepting over $300,000 in campaign donations from companies and individuals he regulates as secretary of state.

Kemp responded to the allegations by claiming that he has returned donations received by his campaign that were illegal because of his position as secretary of state.

Both Kemp and Cagle have announced that, if elected, they would sign “religious liberty” legislation that Gov. Nathan Deal blocked, implement lower taxes and slash regulations.

The Georgia Democratic Party released a statement on July 12 decrying the potential damage either Republican candidate could do if elected to office in November.

“The policies and actions of Cagle and Kemp threaten to completely undermine the advances that Georgia has made over the past eight years,” the statement says.

The winner of the GOP primary election will face a formidable opponent in Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia House minority leader. Abrams defeated Stacey Evans, a former state legislator, in the May 22 primary election with more than 75 percent of the vote.

If elected in November, Stacey Abrams would become the first black female governor in the United States.

Regardless of today’s election results, Kemp and Cagle will come together at a scheduled GOP unity rally on July 26.

“The stakes in Georgia have never been higher. While our candidates continue to seek the Republican nomination, Stacey Abrams is on the war path to make our state as liberal as California and New York. We can’t let that happen,” the Georgia Republican Party said in a statement.

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