On Wednesday night, Hunter Hill came to Athens to speak to UGA’s College Republicans about his 2018 gubernatorial bid. Hill, a conservative Republican state senator who squeaked out a win in his Buckhead-centered district in 2016, says he is running on a platform of ideas and philosophical principles. Although he gave lip-service to his campaign pledges of abolishing the state income tax for most Georgians, doubling the state’s investment in transportation, and opening up school choice options through innovations such as education savings accounts, Hill’s high points certainly came when he spoke about his time serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan and how it influenced his view on government efficacy.
Hill says he was tasked with winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, but he was given a helmet and weapon to do so, illustrating that the government was clueless when it came to nation-building. He drew a parallel between the billions of dollars the U.S. government has devoted to the war in Afghanistan and the billions spent on social welfare programs to highlight his central point: the government is not very good at delivering life change. Hill says that this realization is what drew him to state government and that he saw the same trends at work in Georgia, even with the state under solid Republican control.
The solution, he says, is to move the government away from being a “jack of all trades,” and instead focus on its core missions, which he says are the public goods of transportation, education, and public safety.
With his philosophical conservative message and decorated military background (three tours in Afghanistan with two Bronze Stars), Hill has won a number of the local GOP straw polls and the Georgia GOP straw poll, defeating longer serving officials like Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp. While there is no denying that straw polls are ambiguous and certainly aren’t always predictive of outcomes, Hill’s success indicates that his message can resonate in small settings and might win him a number of loyal supporters and donors. He did raise over $1 million prior to the first reporting period, showing that his campaign has some muscle behind it.
During the Q&A session, Hill mostly avoided questions about his views on the LGBT discrimination question that is folded into religious liberty. He said he supports cuts to social welfare programs like Medicaid, favors an economic development solution to address stagnation in rural Georgia, and seemed to be open to turning away the children of undocumented immigrants from K-12 schools. He has a nuanced view on medical marijuana, saying he doesn’t support cultivation in Georgia right now but does think the federal government should remove it from the list of Schedule I drugs and allow testing by the FDA.
There’s a long way to go before the gubernatorial primary next May. Hill has much to do in terms of fundraising and getting his name out to Republican primary voters before then. Moreover, running against Cagle and Kemp, both of whom are better known and better funded, will be an uphill climb. However, if he can end up as one of the top-two finishers in the May 22 primary and force a lower-turnout runoff in July 2018, his burgeoning grassroots celebrity might pay off and deliver him to the general election.