Georgia Republicans tried to present a united front at a “unity rally” Thursday after Brian Kemp’s blowout victory in the battle for governor.
And Democrats, who have their own fence-mending to do, don’t want voters to forget Casey Cagle’s remarks that Republicans would lose in November if he’s not the nominee.
For both parties, consolidating support is plenty easier when each nominee won landslide victories. Kemp beat Cagle by nearly 40 percentage points, and Democrat Stacey Abrams won by an even larger margin over her rival back in May.
But setting aside bruised egos is still complicated business. One of Cagle’s top supporters, state Sen. Renee Unterman, told reporters she won’t back Kemp until his campaign apologizes for questioning her mental health. It has yet to do so.
And down-ticket rivalries still simmer on. Former state Rep. Geoff Duncan defeated state Sen. David Shafer by a razor-thin margin, Tuesday night’s only cliffhanger. But Shafer, once the front-runner, hasn’t conceded defeat, and his supporters are demanding a recount. Neither Republican attended Thursday’s event.
The focus at the rally, which attracted hundreds of supporters and dozens of elected officials, was on moving past the poisonous talk of the runoff.
A tide of Republican figures who endorsed Cagle or stayed neutral in the race promptly backed the secretary of state. Among them was Gov. Nathan Deal, a Cagle backer who gave Kemp a vote of confidence, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who didn’t publicly take sides.
It was a show of force from the state’s most popular Republicans, who revved up the crowd by highlighting GOP policies from the past 16 years - and previewed the line of attack against Abrams.
“The Democrats keep doing us favors — they’ve given us a target who is the most radical, liberal, progressive candidate in Georgia history,” Perdue said. “We need to lay down a marker tonight that the march to socialism will not come through Georgia.”
House Speaker David Ralston warned that Democrats are more energized, more motivated, better funded and “yes, more united” than at any time since Republicans took power in Georgia.
“As Republicans, we must stand together,” he said. “If we turn on each other, than we’re turning over the governor’s office to the most liberal administration in the history of Georgia.”
And Kemp name-checked the only two GOP governors in the last century, while taking a dig at Abrams’ national profile.
“I can assure you I’m not worried about being on the cover of TIME magazine,” he said. “I’m worried about building off the great legacy of Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal.”
Also on the stage was Cagle, who got the last word. During the runoff campaign, he unleashed escalating attacks on Kemp and repeatedly said there was “no question in my mind” that the secretary of state will lose to Abrams in November.
Still, he quickly endorsed Kemp after his defeat — and got a hearty applause for telling the crowd he’s “confident and convinced that Brian Kemp is the right person to carry this torch forward.”
“We always win, as Republicans, on ideas. Let’s not ever forget that,” Cagle said, adding that Kemp can win “but we all have to come together to fight this fight.”
That led to snickering from national Democrats, who are poised to invest millions in the contest. The Democratic Governors Association released a highlight reel of Cagle’s most biting attacks on Kemp and predicted that “Georgia voters won’t be fooled by this phony photo-op.”
Asked about the Republican attacks during a campaign stop in Pooler, Abrams pivoted to a new proposal to boost the number of apprenticeships and avoided direct attacks on Kemp.
“My mission is to win this election by talking to every Georgian,” Abrams said. “It doesn’t really matter who else is doing this because I’m running for Georgia.”
Democrats quickly worked to patch things up after combative races to take on Republican incumbents in two competitive suburban U.S. House districts. They are among dozens of seats across the nation that Democrats are targeting this November to flip the chamber.
David Kim speedily backed Carolyn Bourdeaux in her bid to defeat U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall. And Kevin Abel urged his supporters to line up behind Lucy McBath, who won the nomination to face U.S. Rep. Karen Handel.
Even so, Abel displayed a tinge of regret over the tone of the campaign in a memo, lamenting that he was pilloried for musing about the potential creation of a moderate third party.
“I am saddened that party primary politics has a way of suppressing such messages of moderation; how the very word ‘moderate’ connotes such a vile response from those who prefer to play in the end zones,” he wrote. “But I am a realist and a pragmatist and I know that change doesn’t come with one swing of the bat.”
Progressives up and down the ballot won big victories during the nomination process, with a notable exception: John Barrow, a moderate former congressman, is running for secretary of state on a platform of securing the state’s election system and fighting gerrymandering.
Democrats hope a new strategy of appealing to a base that demands a more aggressive response to President Donald Trump’s policies will help them retake state offices they haven’t held in more than a decade.
“We have not been successful running campaigns to where we looked to validation from moderates and conservatives who may cross over,” said Michael Owens, the Cobb County Democratic chairman. “Now we have enough Democrats in this state to actually win these elections.”
Kemp welcomed the rival party’s tilt to the left, saying it will be easier to draw a contrast with a Democratic ticket “backed by billionaires and socialists who want to turn Georgia into California.”
“This isn’t about me and my big truck. This is about us,” Kemp said, referring to his TV ads. “This is about fighting for literally the soul of our state in the fall. It’s about our values and the beliefs that make this such a great state to live, work and raise a family.”
Staff writers Tamar Hallerman and Becca Godwin contributed to this article.
It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Stores we’ve done include a look at Kemp’s fundraising among industries he regulates and Abrams’ tax difficulties. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.