Repub­li­can hope­fuls race to woo the right

Can­di­dates work to ap­peal to con­ser­va­tive vot­ers be­fore next year.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Greg Bluestein gbluestein@ajc.com

Repub­li­can can­di­dates in Ge­or­gia rou­tinely race to the party’s right flank, but the lead­ing con­tenders in next year’s GOP race for gov­er­nor have set a new pace as they try to outdo each other with at­ten­tion-grab­bing moves a year from the vote.

Lt. Gov. Casey Ca­gle opened a nasty feud with the lib­eral strong­hold of De­catur, and he re­layed ev­ery twist and turn of the fight to his sup­port­ers with cam­paign up­dates.

Ge­or­gia Sec­re­tary of State Brian Kemp har­rumphed about a le­gal ad­vi­sory that cleared the way for cheer­lead­ers to kneel for the na­tional an­them, and he blasted re­ports crit­i­cal of his of­fice’s role in a law­suit as “fake news.”

And state Sen. Michael Wil­liams has un­loaded an arse­nal of ap­peals aimed at prov­ing he’s the most ar­dently con­ser­va­tive can­di­date, from raf­fling off a de­vice like one used in the Las Ve­gas mas­sacre to lead­ing a protest against a teacher who dis­ci­plined stu­dents for wear­ing a pro-Don­ald Trump T-shirt.

Wil­liams has en­gaged in so many ploys that an­other ri­val, for­mer state Sen. Hunter Hill, com­pared him to an on­go­ing “circus act.”

“Politi­cians are al­ways go­ing to pull stunts dur­ing an elec­tion year,” said Cody Hall, a spokesman for Hill.

“As a three tour com­bat vet­eran, Hunter un­der­stands what it takes for a mis­sion to be suc­cess­ful,” Hall said. “Vot­ers want a bat­tle-tested, true con­ser­va­tive leader with the ex­pe­ri­ence to de­liver re­sults — not an­other ca­reer politi­cian pos­tur­ing to win votes.”

There’s a strate­gic ne­ces­sity be­hind the ma­neu­ver­ing. The can­di­dates are com­pet­ing for a slice of the vote that skews far more con­ser­va­tive than the state’s over­all elec­torate. And in Ge­or­gia GOP pol­i­tics, that means an on­go­ing bat­tle to avoid be­ing painted as soft on con­ser­va­tive is­sues.

That’s one rea­son all the lead­ing can­di­dates have em­braced the “re­li­gious lib­erty” pro­pos­als pop­u­lar with the party’s base, de­spite warn­ings from Gov. Nathan Deal that it could risk the state’s pur­suit of Ama­zon’s se­cond head­quar­ters and other eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment deals.

And it also means none can dare put much day­light be­tween him­self and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who re­mains ex­ceed­ingly pop­u­lar among Repub­li­can vot­ers. Trump’s ap­proval rat­ing hov­ers above 80 per­cent in some sur­veys of likely GOP vot­ers in Ge­or­gia.

“Ev­ery­one is putting on a rhetor­i­cal fash­ion show for the base right now — try­ing to model the most con­ser­va­tive hat and bloomers, so to speak,” said Dan McLa­gan, a for­mer aide to ex-Gov. Sonny Per­due.

The Demo­cratic can­di­dates, for­mer state Reps. Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, hope the jock­ey­ing comes back to haunt who­ever emerges from the Repub­li­can field.

“Vot­ers around the coun­try and here in Ge­or­gia re­jected ex­treme right-wing re­van­chist rhetoric,” Clark­ston Mayor Ted Terry said. “Can­di­dates, re­gard­less of party, would do well to fo­cus on ev­i­dence-based pol­icy so­lu­tions that will bring our coun­try and state to­gether.”

But they’ve staked their own po­si­tions that could com­pli­cate their gen­eral elec­tion pitch. Both broke with re­cent Demo­cratic strat­egy by call­ing for new gun re­stric­tions af­ter the mas­sacre in Las Ve­gas. And Abrams has called for the re­moval of the trio of Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers carved in the face of Stone Moun­tain, say­ing we “must never cel­e­brate those who de­fended slav­ery and tried to de­stroy the Union.”

No slow start

The cam­paign for gov­er­nor has been well un­der­way since the spring, when a spate of can­di­dates for­mally en­tered the race or sig­naled that they would jump in.

And at the heart of the Repub­li­can bat­tle is a fight to win over the grass-roots base of likely GOP vot­ers. In 2010, the last wide-open race for gov­er­nor, about 680,000 vot­ers cast bal­lots in the first round of the Repub­li­can pri­mary, roughly one-quar­ter of the to­tal vote for the gen­eral elec­tion.

(The Demo­cratic nom­i­nee was cho­sen by an even smaller bloc of 400,000 vot­ers.)

The cam­paigns have al­ready be­gun to as­sid­u­ously tar­get their most likely sup­port­ers, and sev­eral have an­nounced they have a net­work of sup­port­ers in each of Ge­or­gia’s 159 coun­ties.

And yet it’s still early enough — the party pri­maries aren’t un­til May — that the field is still in flux.

Even in­ter­nal polls re­leased by Ca­gle’s and Kemp’s cam­paigns show that nei­ther of the two can­di­dates, the only two statewide of­fi­cers in the field, have a lock on the two spots in a likely runoff.

An­other Repub­li­can con­tender, busi­ness­man Clay Tip­pins, re­cently filed pa­per­work to run for gov­er­nor; he’s set to open his cam­paign head­quar­ters Wednesday in Buck­head. And some party fig­ures have pushed for an­other high-pro­file can­di­date, such as U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, to en­ter the race.

Bump stocks and ‘noth­ing burg­ers’

That un­cer­tainty has added an­other layer of volatil­ity to the race, as each can­di­date has rushed to shore up his con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials.

Ca­gle, a Gainesville Repub­li­can first elected to state of­fice in 1994, is wary of be­ing slapped with an “es­tab­lish­ment” la­bel and has gone on the of­fen­sive with a ripe Repub­li­can tar­get.

He’s in a lengthy war of words ac­cus­ing the city of De­catur of vi­o­lat­ing a state law that bars lo­cal gov­ern­ments from pro­vid­ing sanc­tu­ary to im­mi­grants in the coun­try il­le­gally. De­catur of­fi­cials have de­nied any wrong­do­ing.

Kemp, who over­sees the state’s elec­tions, lashed out af­ter the state At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice is­sued guid­ance that sug­gested the de­ci­sions by Ken­ne­saw State Univer­sity cheer­lead­ers who took a knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them were pro­tected by free speech.

“Just be­cause you have the right to protest,” he said in a state­ment shortly af­ter the guid­ance was made pub­lic, “doesn’t make it right.”

And faced with ques­tions about the era­sure of a com­puter server that’s a part of a law­suit chal­leng­ing the state’s vot­ing sys­tem, Kemp’s cam­paign called cov­er­age of the move a “taste­less noth­ing burger.”

The ‘Danc­ing Fer­ret’

But no can­di­date has been so ag­gres­sive with head­line-grab­bing at­tempts as Wil­liams, a Cum­ming Repub­li­can first elected to the Ge­or­gia Se­nate in 2014, who is putting his early en­dorse­ment for Trump at the cen­ter of his cam­paign.

He claimed with­out ev­i­dence that he was of­fered a cov­eted po­si­tion in the Se­nate if he aban­doned his gu­ber­na­to­rial bid. He held a press con­fer­ence promis­ing “cor­rob­o­rat­ing” de­tails about Ca­gle that fell short of his prom­ise. He claimed vic­tory af­ter a Chero­kee County teacher he protested against re­signed amid death threats af­ter she told two stu­dents to con­ceal their pro-Trump shirts. He made TV re­al­ity ac­tor Dog the Bounty Hunter his cam­paign co-chair­man.

And he grabbed a wave of na­tional head­lines when he an­nounced he would give away a bump stock de­vice to “one lucky win­ner” days af­ter au­thor­i­ties said it was used by a gun­man in Las Ve­gas in the worst mass shoot­ing in mod­ern U.S. history. He claimed the use of the de­vice “ac­tu­ally pre­vented more ca­su­al­ties” be­cause it was so in­ac­cu­rate.

His sup­port­ers are quick to note he’s also played a proac­tive role on GOP poli­cies. He was one of the first to pledge he would sign a “re­li­gious lib­erty” mea­sure if elected; he is the only lead­ing Repub­li­can to sup­port a pro­posal to ex­pand Ge­or­gia’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­gram by le­gal­iz­ing the in-state cul­ti­va­tion of the drug.

“I might not be able to give the best speeches, have the best punch lines,” Wil­liams said at a Cobb County GOP gath­er­ing. “But I’m go­ing to go out there and fight for our rights, our lib­er­ties tooth and nail.”

But he’s fac­ing a back­lash from some Repub­li­can of­fi­cials who said he has gone too far.

“News — real and fake — is com­ing hard and fast these days, so can­di­dates are try­ing to stand out. But there’s a line,” said McLa­gan, the GOP strate­gist who has not picked a side in next year’s elec­tion. “If you run around in a Speedo with a clown tat­too on your chest and your hair on fire, you will get on the news,” he added. “The prob­lem is, peo­ple don’t want Gor­gonzola the Danc­ing Fer­ret as their gov­er­nor.”

BOB AN­DRES PHOTOS / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Sen. Mike Crane (left), R-New­nan, con­fers with Sen. Michael Wil­liams, R-Cum­ming, who backed Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Lt. Gov. Casey Ca­gle is in a lengthy war of words ac­cus­ing the city of De­catur of vi­o­lat­ing a state law that bars lo­cal gov­ern­ments from pro­vid­ing sanc­tu­ary to im­mi­grants.

Ge­or­gia Sec­re­tary of State Brian Kemp (right) and Rus­sell Lewis, chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor with the Sec­re­tary of State’s Of­fice, talk about the state’s elec­tion readi­ness.

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