Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has been preparing his run for Georgia governor for more than a decade, and he entered the race with his lineup ready: He had a noncontroversial campaign agenda of lower taxes and more jobs. He scared off well-known rivals. And he raked in big money.
But as the ranks of Republicans challenging his perch grew, a strategy based on trying to walk the line between conventional establishment forces and hard-line conservatives grew more complicated.
Suddenly, he couldn’t afford to be outflanked on the right, even if it meant the positions he staked could come back to haunt him in November.
He revived a call for “religious liberty” legislation. He started a legal feud with the liberal city of Decatur — a favorite boogeyman of state Republicans — over illegal immigration. And he picked a fight with Georgia’s largest private employer amid a gun rights battle.
At the same time, he’s been pilloried by his Republican rivals who paint him as a mushy moderate. They’re trying to use his long record in public office against him while trying to stake out more conservative positions on gun rights, abortion and tax cuts.
He’s responded by taking partial credit for many of the conservative policies enacted over the past dozen years, such as a crackdown on illegal immigration and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. He’s quick to echo Gov. Nathan Deal’s greatest accomplishments and brushes off attacks from rivals, including two who have launched ads featuring hapless Cagle lookalikes.
“No one has to question or wonder where I’m going to be to ensure that our protections are there as it relates to our free exercise of religion,” he said.
“Look at my record on pro-life. Look at my record on every conservative issue,” he said. “Don’t take the words of those that want to politicize something. Look at my record: It speaks for itself.”
There’s no doubt Cagle is the favorite in the Republican race. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll echoed others that showed him hovering in the 40s, seemingly assured of a spot in a runoff with an outside chance at winning the May 22 contest outright.
And at every turn, he aims to banish talk that he’s this cycle’s version of John Oxendine, the GOP front-runner for governor whose collapse in the 2010 primary made him a cautionary tale to a generation of candidates.
Cagle’s campaign haul of more than $7 million helped hire a small army of operatives and aides — and volley after volley of TV ads that his opponents can’t parry. He’s raised more money than several of his opponents have combined.
First elected to the Georgia Senate in 1994, Cagle’s opponents have tried to turn his long electoral record against him. They brand him “Campaign Casey” and call for a fresh perspective in the state’s highest office after Cagle’s three terms as lieutenant governor.
For Cagle, that type of experience is what sets him apart from opponents who didn’t have a hand in many of the state’s biggest decisions of the past decade.
“The important thing that people look at when you’re measuring who is going to be lieutenant governor or governor is what is the experience you’re bringing to the table,” he said. “I look at a person’s resume: They’ve done it before. Can they do it again?”
That’s a tough sell to some conservatives who backed President Donald Trump precisely because he had no political experience. As Cagle delivered his stump speech at a campaign stop in Covington, Dick Cottrill rolled his eyes.
“I’ve heard Casey prattle on like this before,” said Cottrill, a 73-year-old who is backing former state Sen. Hunter Hill. “He’s more of the same. He says what you want to hear. And I just don’t buy it.”
Eye on November
While most of his rivals are waging all-out battles to land a second spot in a likely July runoff, Cagle is campaigning with one eye on the general election. His maneuvering shows he’s wary of taking positions that could hurt him in November while also not trying to cede too much ground to his GOP rivals.
When Secretary of State Brian Kemp pledged to outdo a new Mississippi law that would feature the toughest abortion restrictions in the nation, he pointed to less stringent restrictions the Legislature passed earlier this decade.
He initially was quoted as opposing a “constitutional carry” law that would allow gun owners to conceal and carry handguns without a permit, unlike many of his GOP rivals. And when Hill called for the broader elimination of the state income tax, he’s stuck to a more limited call to cut taxes by $100 million.
The same stance applies to Trump, an exceedingly popular figure among Georgia Republicans who is also exceedingly divisive among Democrats. Cagle reminds crowds he supports the president, but he hasn’t tethered himself as directly to Trump as some of his rivals.
Perhaps the biggest moment of Cagle’s candidacy, though, was his vow to “kill” a tax break for Delta Air Lines after the airline broke business ties with the National Rifle Association. The pledge brought him a surge of national attention and the NRA’s endorsement, which may have helped shore up his image with conservatives.
But the state’s revenge on Georgia’s largest private employer seems poised to linger in the general election. A string of high-profile business leaders, including some who have backed Cagle in the past, donated to Democrats this cycle shortly after the flap.
“I remain very, very concerned about playing politics with issues that — this is sort of like playing roulette with jobs,” said Larry Gellerstedt, the chief executive of Cousins, who gave to Democrat Stacey Evans shortly after the flap.
The son of a single mother, Cagle grew up poor in North Georgia and dreamed of playing professional football. He got into the tuxedo rental business shortly after an injury forced him out of the game, and he later expanded into real estate investments and banking.
After ousting a Democratic incumbent at the age of 28, he used his perch in the Georgia Senate to launch a long-shot bid for the state’s No. 2 job in 2006 — and trounced Ralph Reed in the GOP primary.
Ensconced in his new position, Cagle made it an open secret that he had his eye on the governor’s office. He filed paperwork in 2008 to replace a term-limited Sonny Perdue two years later, led in early polls and was branded the early front-runner.
His surprising announcement in April 2009 to drop out of the race, citing back problems, upended the contest and gave Deal — then a congressman and like Cagle, a Republican from Gainesville — an opening.
Cagle wasn’t sidelined. He was easily re-elected as lieutenant governor in 2010 and 2014, and he slowly consolidated his power and collected IOUs. While never cozy with Deal, he has embraced some of the governor’s high-profile accomplishments and claims partial credit for them now.
And he’s made his own higher education program, called the College and Career Academy, his calling card on the campaign trail. The program combines college courses with tech school training, and there are now 42 of the academies across the state.
For Cagle, who has an associate degree, that message hits close to home.
“We have sold a narrative that every kid needs to get a four-year college degree,” he told GOP voters at a recent campaign stop. “And that means too many jobs that require an industry certification or a two-year degree are left open.”
2018 governor’s race
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is profiling candidates for governor from the two major parties going into Georgia’s primary on May 22. Stories ran last week about the Democratic candidates, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans. This week, the AJC is profiling the Republicans in the race.
Monday: Casey Cagle
Today: Hunter Hill
Wednesday: Brian Kemp
Thursday: Clay Tippins
Friday: Michael Williams
Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.