A wild-card contender wages unconventional fight for Georgia governor

Clay Tippins has pounded push-ups with high school students, talked combat maneuvers with military buddies, shed tears with medical marijuana advocates and launched a scathing Super Bowl attempt to take down his top rival.

The one-time swimming star and Navy SEAL is quickly making waves in the Republican race for governor, and he talks about his campaign strategy in tactical battlefield terms. It’s clear from his opening salvos that he’s waging an unconventional fight.

On the campaign trail, the business executive tries to make his lack of elected experience a selling point, in the same way David Perdue honed his image as a jean-jacketed outsider to score a statewide win. And he’s staked policy positions that show he’s not afraid to alienate some conservatives.

He’s the only Republican in the field of five top party contenders who refused to pledge support for the “religious liberty” bill that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed. He’s bucked most of his rivals with support for a significant expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program.

And he favors pouring more state funds into massive infrastructure projects, including sinking more money into deepening Savannah’s port and building a truck bypass that would skirt metro Atlanta’s traffic.

Tippins is in hostile territory. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp both have far greater name recognition and more campaign cash. His other two GOP opponents — Hunter Hill and Michael Williams — have cultivated their own bases of support through years in the state Senate.

But Tippins is hoping to parlay an anti-incumbent wave in May’s primary to emerge as a wild card. And prominent Republicans say he could wind up posing a significant threat to candidates with the highest profiles — Cagle and Kemp — for a spot in a July runoff.

“I’m not the right governor every election,” Tippins said. “But there are times in history where a candidate enters at the right time. And I believe my skill set is uniquely suited for this moment in Georgia. We’re at a crossover point.”

‘In my DNA’

A Gwinnett County native, Tippins suffered from repeated bouts of pneumonia until a pediatrician told his parents they needed to do something to strengthen his weak lungs. They turned to swimming, and Tippins might as well have sprouted gills.

As a member of Stanford University’s swim team, he won three national championships and was runner-up for a fourth. A trip to Cuba in 1991 to swim in the Pan American Games helped cement his dream of becoming a Navy SEAL. As he peered at imposing cliffs on Cuba’s shores, he said, he imagined what it would take to mount them in an assault.

“I always had a deep, deep desire to protect,” he said. “The knack for coming up with unconventional and aggressive ways of doing that has always been in my DNA.”

After his service, he worked for several Silicon Valley firms before landing at Capgemini, a Paris-based consulting and outsourcing firm. He rose through the ranks in its Atlanta office, ultimately becoming a top executive in the firm’s North America entertainment and telecom division.

That position has come under scrutiny. A lawsuit claims he was involved in a conspiracy to oust the head of a tech startup in exchange for an ownership stake in that company. Tippins said the complaint, filed shortly after he entered the race, was “dirty politics as usual.”

As the race for governor began to take shape, Tippins found himself increasingly drawn to politics. He cast about for potential Republicans to challenge Cagle but jumped in himself when he found no one willing to take the plunge.

He’s put boosting third-grade reading levels at the center of his campaign, and he said thousands of state workers set to retire over the next four years give him a chance to reshape Georgia’s government. He wants to tailor their replacements to use more data-driven analysis to tackle problems such as disability fraud.

In his first TV ad, a Super Bowl Sunday spot that featured look-alikes of his opponents flailing in a swimming pool, he sharpened his message.

“Why are we still running government pretty much the same way we did 50 years ago?” he asked.

‘Prepare for the famine’

It was a potent reminder that Tippins wasn’t scared to ruffle feathers.

Hill followed up days later by snapping up costlier airtime for his own ad that, like Tippins’, highlighted his military service and featured bumbling impersonators of other GOP contenders. The Tippins spot also drew a rebuke from the Deal administration, which is jealously guarding the governor’s legacy.

Chris Riley, the governor’s top aide, said he was thankful “to all who served to protect our freedoms but I am not going to apologize” for Deal’s accomplishments. Tippins, in response, praised Deal’s leadership in setting up Georgia to take advantage of “seven years of plenty.”

“But you hit cycles and you need to prepare for the famine,” he said, recounting the story of visiting a glitzy Kodak booth in 2012 shortly before the photo giant filed for bankruptcy. “I took a picture and reminded myself: Don’t ever stop planning for the future.”

His policy views defy conventional Georgia GOP strategy. Republicans often race to the party’s right flank, eager to scoop up support from conservatives who decide the primary vote, before taking steps toward the center in the general election.

Tippins, though, is trying to signal early he’s an acceptable choice for more moderate Republicans and independents — the bloc of voters that Georgia GOP leaders worry could be most alienated by hard-right proposals.

In an emotional conversation with families of children who rely on cannabis oil to treat illnesses, Tippins vowed to do “whatever it takes” to expand access to the medication — even if it meant allowing farmers to legally grow marijuana in Georgia.

While polls show a broad majority of voters agree with that stance, it’s a more difficult sell among conservatives and law enforcement groups who worry it could lead to legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Tippins said he would not support that expansion.

And Tippins’ refusal to endorse the religious liberty measure, criticized by corporate powers and civil rights groups as state-sanctioned discrimination, puts him at odds with his Republican rivals.

The other four have each pledged to sign the proposal if they’re elected. It remains a top priority for grass-roots Republicans: A majority of activists in Georgia’s 14 congressional districts passed resolutions urging lawmakers to adopt the measure, which they say is crucial to protect the faith-based from government intrusion. One group even “censured” the governor for his veto.

Without specifics, Tippins accused his rivals of signing the pledge and then appealing to corporate heavyweights who vigorously opposed the measure with a “nod and a wink” assuring them it won’t pass.

“As a believer, it makes me want to vomit. And as a leader, I won’t go around pledging to sign undrafted legislation,” he said. “I’m going to protect religious liberty. But I’m going to handle it in a way that’s consistent with my values.”

‘Dark horse’

Prominent Republicans who have not yet chosen a side are giving Tippins a closer look.

Several GOP district chairmen have said privately or publicly that they see him as a potential alternative to Cagle or Kemp at the top of the ticket. W. John Wood, the Republican chairman of a Savannah-based district, said Tippins could wind up as the “dark horse” in the May vote.

“In a crowded GOP field, his voice is starting to emerge,” Wood said. “His ad attacks the status quo and incumbent opponents with humor but not maliciousness.”

State Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican who authored the state’s medical marijuana law, reached out to every GOP candidate in hopes that they would support an expansion of the initiative. While Williams also favors growing the program, Peake said Tippins is the only “viable” candidate to back it.

“He’s an absolute contender,” Peake said. “If you’re asking if he’s going to be a disrupter in this race — absolutely. Because the other candidates won’t see him coming.”

So far, the leading GOP contenders have largely given him a pass. While Kemp and Cagle have sparred openly over the state’s outdated voting network, they have yet to directly attack Tippins. In an interview, Kemp ducked a chance to criticize Tippins and instead highlighted his own background in and out of public office.

“I’ve got legislative experience, executive experience and, most importantly, private-sector experience,” he said. “We’re dealing in that realm every day, and I think that’s what people want. I can’t worry about someone else’s campaign.”

If Tippins starts to rise in polls, so will the heat around him. He said he knows that a more aggressive phase of the governor’s race could wind up ratcheting up the pressure on him. He is, he added, a happy warrior at heart.

“If you’re a SEAL, you love an enemy that’s done something in a certain way for a real long time. That’s an opponent you can exploit,” Tippins said. “I love that I’m told I am an underdog. You want to motivate a SEAL? Tell them it’s not possible.”

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