A Preview of the 2018 GOP Gubernatorial Primary: Kemp vs. Cagle

Brian Kemp and Casey Cagle are two Republicans who are definitely running for governor next year. Other possible contenders include Speaker of the House David Ralston, state senators Michael Williams, Hunter Hill, Josh McKoon, and Burt Jones, state representative Allen Peake, former congressmen Lynn Westmoreland and Jack Kingston, and political operative Nick Ayers. I will update this list as announcements become more likely. Expect a rundown of the Democrats soon.

Brian Kemp: The only announced candidate so far. The Athens Republican has served as secretary of state since he was appointed by Sonny Perdue ahead of the 2010 elections (he was running for secretary of state at the time of his appointment). He served as a state senator from 2003 to 2007 and ran unsuccessfully for agriculture commissioner in 2006. He is a small business owner and is involved in the construction industry.

Early indications are that Kemp might be pursuing a Trump-like strategy, announcing his campaign slogan as “Georgia First.” In his announcement at a Cobb County GOP meeting, Kemp hit on some of the themes that Trump did in 2016: cracking down on illegal immigration, reaching out to rural voters who have been bypassed by globalization, and fighting the “political establishment” at the State Capitol. Like Trump, Kemp is probably trying to rack up rural votes to make up for weaknesses in metro Atlanta.

Strengths: Kemp is well-connected with the GOP grassroots. These are the voters who will show up to vote in a primary election and, because the Georgia GOP is not incredibly strong in Atlanta, the rural voters he is targeting will be critical to a primary victory. He also has decent name recognition, considering he has been secretary of state for over seven years, and he has been on a statewide ballot twice already. His name is familiar to anyone who has voted in the past six years and to any business owner who has had to deal with the secretary of state’s office. Kemp is just hoping that the name association is positive rather than negative.

Weaknesses: First and foremost is money. Kemp is not seen as a candidate who will be able to rake in the big bucks from wealthy donors or businesses (which may be even more true if he endorses isolationist-like policies that hurt commerce). Furthermore, he has a number of incidents under his belt that may call his organizational effectiveness into question. Most famous is the 2015 incident where his office accidently gave the personal data of over 6 million voters to outside organizations. As usual, the cover-up was worse than the crime, with voter groups and Democrats criticizing his response.

There was also a question of whether Georgia voting data was compromised in 2016 by a cyber-attack on the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State, which manages elections in a partnership with the secretary of state. Federal investigators found that a security researcher was responsible for the breach and that no federal laws were broken, so Kemp is probably in the clear on this one. Still, the association with scandal might matter more than whether he actually did something wrong.

Casey Cagle: He has signed his papers to run and is expected to make an announcement soon. Georgia’s long-serving lieutenant governor has been eyeing the governor’s office since he withdrew from the 2010 gubernatorial race due to a spinal condition. He is already staffing his campaign and will be the front-runner when he joins. Cagle has a long history in state government, serving as a state senator from Gainesville from 1995 to 2007 and then as lieutenant governor from 2007 to the present.

Cagle was the first Republican to serve as lieutenant governor of Georgia; however, his tenure has been somewhat controversial. In 2010, leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate (including current Majority Leader Bill Cowsert) stripped Cagle of his ability to control committee leadership, the most important power of the lieutenant governor. The senators complained that Cagle was not consulting the caucus before agreeing to support proposals such as Sonny Perdue’s bed tax. Eventually, Cagle regained his committee assignment power, but he has since been aware that he serves at the pleasure of the state senate.

He will likely base his campaign on education reform. He recently wrote Education Unleashed, a book that details his plan to put public education under local control. He has been an advocate for charter schools and career-based education, including apprenticeships and career academies. Cagle has also shown a desire to go outside the establishment box (somewhat) and pursue the same voters that were drawn to Donald Trump. He has spoken about the need to have political outsiders like Trump, provided that they work with political insiders like himself. He also struck a populist(ish) chord in his speech at the 2017 Eggs and Issues breakfast hosted by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Strengths: Money. Cagle has been in politics for a long time and has plenty of lucrative connections in the business world. Expect him to lean heavily on these donors. Being from the Gainesville area, he has access to a political network that delivered the governor’s mansion to Nathan Deal. That is an advantage that anyone would take. Cagle also has nearly three decades of relationships in Georgia politics and plenty of name recognition, having been on the statewide ballot three times already. Even if Georgia Republicans don’t know much about Cagle, they have surely heard his name before (that said, his alliterative name probably won’t hurt either).

Weaknesses: Cagle’s strengths are also his weaknesses. Three decades is a lot of time to make friendships, but also plenty of time to make enemies. Recently, he has had to walk a thin line between the right wing of his party (which supplies its most enthusiastic voters) and the business wing (which supplies its fundraising). This was especially evident on the issue of religious freedom over the past three years. The so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which possibly discriminates against LGBT persons) drove a wedge in the Georgia GOP with business leaders worried about becoming North Carolina and grassroots activists worried about becoming California. Cagle will certainly have to face this party fracture in 2018. If he strays too close to business interests, he might be painted as a career politician or “establishment insider” who is too ingrained with special interests and lobbyists to connect with the grassroots.

Cagle will also have to face the skeletons in his closet. For years, there was Capitol gossip that he was having an extramarital affair (rumors he has always denied). The rumors came to a head in 2010 when there was an ethics complaint filed against him by a potential challenger in the 2010 gubernatorial race. The complaint claimed that Cagle had an affair with a campaign staffer and then paid her an above-market rate for work on his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Cagle withdrew from the campaign shortly thereafter, so it is hard to say what would have come of the claim. Like Kemp, the association alone might hurt him, regardless of whether it is true.

The Kemp vs. Cagle matchup has been a long time coming. Their rivalry played out in the 2017 legislative session as SB 2 (one of Cagle’s top priorities) targeted bureaucratic inefficiencies in Kemp’s office. Each is staking out his respective electoral coalition now, but their calculations will surely change as more candidates enter the race and make their own claims to voters and donors. Buckle up because we are just getting started.

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