President Donald Trump is shaking up the emerging race for Georgia governor, forcing Republicans to gamble on how closely to tie themselves to his presidency – and speeding up plans for Democrats who think they have a tantalizing opportunity to exploit his setbacks.
A fight is already under way on the GOP side of the ticket between candidates pledging to “drain the swamp” vying against more mainstream Republicans with long records of experience in public office who aren’t tying themselves directly to Trump’s presidency.
The battle lines have already being drawn: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle didn’t mention Trump at his campaign kickoff, while Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s official announcement practically oozed Trump-ian themes. More Trump loyalists could join the race, including a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence.
Democrats are practically salivating over the chance to energize left-leaning voters by painting whichever Republican emerges as Trump lite. A pair of Democratic rising stars – state Reps. Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans – both figure to put their opposition to Trump at the center of their bids.
The maneuvering underscores the volatility of the race to replace a term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal as the growing field starts to solidify a year before the primary. Each candidate well knows that what could help them win the GOP nomination could be devastating in a general election.
“If Donald Trump was running for governor of Georgia, I’m not sure he would come and say good things about himself right now,” said Chip Lake, a veteran GOP strategist. “He’s just as calculating as the rest of these guys, and he’d be hedging his bets.”
Cagle is the presumed Republican front-runner, with three statewide election victories under his belt and a proven fundraising bona fides that leans heavily toward big-money donors with statehouse connections. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month that a fund tied to Cagle collected more than $2 million from special interests in the months before the 2017 session.
Cagle came out with an establishment Republican message in his May announcement for the race, pledging to create 500,000 new jobs in his first term while slashing taxes by $100 million.
His rivals consider him to be vulnerable, and he hasn’t cleared the field. At his campaign kickoff, he praised Deal – and revived the governor’s campaign mantra to make Georgia the No. 1 place to do business. He steered clear of Trump.
“I agree with the fact that we need tax reform at the national level. We need to repeal and replace Obamacare. We need conservative justices,” he said of Trump’s agenda. “But I’m Casey Cagle. And Georgia knows Casey Cagle. And what I’ll be focused on are the needs of the state.”
Kemp sees an open lane, for now, as the most aggressively pro-Trump candidate in the race. He’s pledged a “Georgia First” motto echoing Trump’s promise to crack down on illegal immigrants. And he nodded to Trump’s imagery of the “forgotten” with a populist vow to help rural Georgians he said are being left behind.
“I feel like I understand the state as well as anyone outside the Capitol,” said Kemp, who has served two terms in the Georgia Senate and is in his second term as Secretary of State. “Look, we’ve got to do stuff for rural Georgia for better jobs, simply getting them the same conveniences we have in metro Atlanta.”
A third candidate, state Sen. Hunter Hill, is running on an intensely local message of bringing more efficiency to government and launching a school-voucher program.
“The overarching goal is an education system where every child has an opportunity to succeed, and expanding choice plays a large role in that,” said Hill, a combat veteran who represents a swath of Atlanta and east Cobb.
Shaking up the Gold Dome
But the GOP field could get a lot more crowded – and soon - with pro-Trump candidates. State Sen. Michael Williams, the first state elected official to endorse Trump, has been sending signals for months that he’s running for governor, most recently with a new website and a spate of fundraisers.
In a recent pitch to donors, the Cumming Republican wrote that it was time to send a jolt through the establishment in Atlanta and “get rid of the career politicians and bureaucrats running our state government.”
An even higher-profile Trump supporter is also said to be considering a run. Nick Ayers, a former aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue, helped steer Mike Pence’s campaign for Indiana governor and remains an adviser to the vice president. Although he’s been tightlipped, Georgia political circles have rumbled for months about his potential bid for governor.
Ayers, who is married to a cousin of Perdue, also served as executive director of the Republican Governors Association. He has never held elected office.
“I am aware that Nick is certainly being encouraged by a lot of people to run for governor,” said Rayna Casey, the Atlanta businesswoman who chaired Trump’s Georgia campaign. “He would be a great governor I would be proud to support.”
Still more pro-Trump candidates are eyeing the race. Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who served more than two decades in Congress, has transformed his image from an establishment-friendly conservative to a staunch Trump defender over the past year as an adviser to the president and a pundit on CNN. He, too, hasn’t ruled out a run.
‘This is possible’
Georgia Democrats, spurned in their last four campaigns for governor, can’t help but see an opportunity.
They figure if 30-year-old Jon Ossoff - hardly a household name among Georgia politicos until this year - can turn the conservative-leaning 6th Congressional District into a battleground, they have a shot at the governor’s race. After all, Republicans routinely won landslide victories in the 6th District, while statewide contests have been much closer.
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who has filed paperwork to run for governor, said Trump isn’t changing her strategy but that there’s no doubt he has energized left-leaning voters - and unnerved independents and moderates who might be receptive to the Democratic Party’s message.
“What he creates is an even sharper example of why this is possible. Not just Trump, but the entirety of this administration and the national reaction to his antics. It’s galvanized voters,” she said.
It’s also made it clear the consequences of not voting, she added, and that “just a small number of people can dramatically change the trajectory of the nation.”
Supporters of Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans, who launched her campaign for governor Thursday, hope she’ll be better able to attract disgruntled Trump supporters and other Republicans. She said her message about “hope” - the scholarship and the concept - will resonate with them.
“Voters are much more interested in what candidates are for than for what they are against,” said Evans. “But make no mistake – Trump is well on his way to being one of the worst presidents the nation has ever seen.”
Republican gubernatorial candidates rallied behind George W. Bush in 2006. Democrats dodged Barack Obama in 2010 and 2014. With Trump, though, it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll factor into the race by this point next year.
“In the past these things were a lot more predictable,” said Lake, the Republican strategist. “Donald Trump doesn’t like predictable.”