Politics is a mean business, as Casey Cagle and David Shafer can attest.
The two Georgia Republicans have spent most of their adult lives building resumes, reputations and relationships, carefully preparing for the opportunity to step into the most powerful offices in the state. They shook the hands, smiled the smiles, went to the meetings, fought the fights, said the words and toed the lines.
But when their chance arrived and their patience was about to be rewarded, voters of their own party snatched it away, deciding that none of that loyalty or hard work mattered. To the contrary, in the eyes of Republican primary voters, those years of experience and preparation were not assets to be stressed but disqualifications that Cagle and Shafer could not overcome.
In a party that hungers for anger and rebellion, they had made the fatal mistake of turning themselves into the establishment. As a result, in primary runoffs for governor and lieutenant governor, they were humiliated by opponents who were far less accomplished but who knew better how to stoke voter anger, fear and resentment and how to leverage those emotions for their own gain.
As Cagle put it in a fateful burst of honesty, “This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest.” In the end, Cagle and Shafer lost because they had none of those things.
Don’t get me wrong: In terms of sympathy, I can’t muster much. The Republican Party has been building toward this situation for decades now, it has done so consciously and deliberately, and Cagle and Shafer have been part of it. Nationally and here in Georgia, the GOP has embraced anger and resentment as primary weapons against the Democrats, training its base to respond almost solely to those emotions. The idea that government might be used to accomplish things, to make lives better, safer and more prosperous, has been so thoroughly discredited within the GOP that it is now easily turned against anyone in the party itself who might be accused of harboring such thoughts.
If you’re an ambitious young Republican eying a career in politics, what lessons do you draw from last week’s outcome? Do you concentrate on finding ways to finance and build out the state’s transportation infrastructure, including mass transit? Another rural hospital closed just last week, this one in Dahlonega — do you worry about policies that might fend off the collapse of the rural health system, and thus save lives and local economies?
No, you probably don’t, because that’s a sucker’s game. As Cagle suggested in what he thought was a private moment, today’s Republican Party shows no ability or interest in crafting public policy, and Brian Kemp, the man who walloped him in the primary, is the perfect proof.
Kemp has been an incompetent as secretary of state, an office whose slight demands rarely exceed the talents of those who hold it. In fact, until now Kemp has been an object of quiet derision even within his own party. His Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, is far better schooled in governance and policy, but as he demonstrated in the primary, Kemp has no intention of fighting on that turf anyway. And while the race may be close, the built-in Republican advantage in Georgia may still prove enough to put him in the governor’s mansion.
But four years of Kemp as governor — four years of right-wing posturing and pandering, with little in the way of substance — could only accelerate this state’s on-going transition to purple-state status.