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Georgia gubernatorial runoff between two GOP hard-liners may come down to who's the 'craziest'

Georgia gubernatorial runoff between two GOP hard-liners may come down to who's the 'craziest'
Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, left, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp during an Atlanta Press Club debate on July 12. (John Bazemore / Associated Press)

When Vice President Mike Pence went down to Georgia on Saturday to wade into its rough, rollicking Republican primary gubernatorial race, he did not hold back. Brian Kemp, the brazen shotgun-toting, chainsaw-revving, truck-driving social conservative, Pence said, was "the real deal."

"I believe that not only is he going to win come this Tuesday, but this man is going to win in November," Pence said to loud whoops and cheers at a campaign rally in downtown Macon. "Brian Kemp will bring the kind of leadership to the statehouse that President Donald Trump has brought to the White House."

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Kemp, the secretary of state, was once considered a longshot for governor, but now he had Pence stumping for him, just days after winning a nod from President Trump. The endorsements come as Kemp appears to be inching ahead of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in Tuesday's runoff after distinguishing himself with a series of provocative, tongue-in-cheek television ads.

In one, he brandishes a double-barrel shotgun as he sits with a nervous young man who wants to date his daughter. In another, he revs up a chain saw to “rip up some regulations” and says he drives a big pickup truck “just in case he needed to round up criminal illegals.”

“Yep, I just said that,” the 54-year-old businessman drawls, with a lopsided grin. “If you want a politically incorrect conservative, that’s me.”

The race between Cagle and Kemp also has become a battle between competing Republican factions in Georgia and Washington, D.C. While Cagle secured the support of outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal, Trump unexpectedly went on Twitter last week to throw his political weight behind Kemp:

“Brian is tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration. He loves our Military and our Vets and protects our Second Amendment. I give him my full and total endorsement.”

Trump’s presence was palpable at Saturday’s Kemp rally. The mood was jubilant, and some supporters donned “America First” T-shirts and waved signs saying, “TRUMP ENDORSES KEMP” and “VOTE KEMP: HE’S NO WIMP.”

“It’s close, but I think Kemp’s going to pull it off,” said Ronald Schwartz, a 78-year-old semiretired former aerospace company manager. “He relates better with the working people.”

After thanking Pence and Trump, Kemp told the crowd he was the only Republican candidate, built in the Trumpian mold, who could go on to energize the GOP base and beat Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.

“Georgians are sick and tired of these politically correct liberals like Stacey Abrams who are offended and outraged by our faith, and our guns and our big trucks,” Kemp railed. “This election is about trust. Who do you trust to do the right thing when no one is looking?”

“KEMP! KEMP! KEMP!” the crowd roared.

Pence’s foray into Macon was a significant setback for Cagle, 52, who began the race as front-runner, raising more than twice as much as Kemp in campaign contributions and beating him by about 13 percentage points in the first round of primary voting.

A Republican stalwart who has served more than two decades as a lawmaker as well as lieutenant governor in Georgia, Cagle has struggled to maintain momentum in the last month after opponents leaked a series of secret recordings — snippets of a private conversation taped by a former competitor in the primary — that they say prove he is just another corrupt, establishment figure.

In the first, most damaging leak, Cagle admitted he backed a bill that expanded school tax credits, even though he considered it “bad public policy,” so he could hinder a political opponent’s fundraising.

In another recording, Cagle said Kemp had targeted a “very rabid” audience. The primary, he grumbled, had boiled down to “who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest.”

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Kemp did not hesitate to paint Cagle as an elitist.

“Cagle calls conservative voters crazy, insults truck drivin' #2A advocates, and accuses me of collusion,” Kemp said on Twitter. “Sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton.”

In turn, Cagle has tried to discredit Kemp as a well-to-do member of the Georgia establishment.

“We’ve got some Republicans who are making millions of dollars a year that are running for office, and their net worth is $10 million,” Cagle said last week at a thinly attended campaign rally in the small town of McDonough. “They’re country club Republicans. They don’t understand what the real world looks like!”

Despite the bitter rhetoric, there are few policy differences between the two Republicans. Both advocate cutting taxes, vigorously defending gun rights, and clamping down on illegal immigration.

They have both vowed to support contentious “religious liberty” legislation that critics say would legalize discrimination against gay people by allowing them to be denied certain services and protections. In 2016, Deal vetoed a bill that passed the House and Senate after resistance from major corporations.

“They’re both conservatives,” said M.V. “Trey” Hood III, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. “Whoever wins the runoff, if he wins the governor race, wouldn’t govern all that differently from the other.”

Still, many in Atlanta, the bustling, entrepreneurial capital of the new South, have watched aghast as Kemp has played up his gung-ho, country-boy conservatism. A hard-line right governor who caters to white rural voters, they fear, could set the state back socially and economically.

A writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dubbed the May primary the “Machismo rodeo,” as five white men, including a former Navy SEAL and an Army veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, “wrestle[d] to demonstrate who has the least amount of estrogen.”

Both Cagle and Kemp have taken pains to align themselves with Trump’s staunch positions on crime and immigration. They’ve also been quick to adopt some of Trump’s more polarizing slogans and behavior.

In a televised debate July 15, both candidates vied to portray the other as untrustworthy — Cagle dubbing Kemp “lyin’ Brian” and Kemp, in turn, calling him “Pinocchio 2.0.” As they traded jabs, they both sounded a lot like Trump, complaining about “fake news” and “special interests” and vowing to deport “criminal illegals.”

After Trump endorsed his opponent, Cagle and his supporters argued against the idea that politicians from out of state — even beloved ones like Trump — should meddle in Georgia politics.

“I don’t think Washington, D.C., should pick our next governor,” Cagle said last week while campaigning in the city of Newnan at a deli called the Redneck Gourmet. “I think that office belongs to Georgians, OK, and we’re going to keep it that way.”

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Prominent local Cagle supporters, such as Lynn Westmoreland, a former Georgia congresswoman, have stressed that they know the candidates better than any leader in D.C.

“The president wouldn’t know [Kemp] if he got in a cab with him,” Westmoreland said at the Newnan rally. “He couldn’t pick him out of a two-person lineup.”

“That’s right!” a woman in the audience hollered.

Whoever wins Tuesday faces Abrams, 44, the former Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives who hopes to become the first black female governor in the country.

Georgia has not elected a Democratic governor in two decade, but party officials say the state’s rapidly diversifying population could make it a swing state in 2020. And many political analysts note that Kemp’s brazen, politically incorrect shtick could be a liability with more moderate, suburban conservatives.

In Macon, however, many of Kemp’s die-hard supporters were confident he could win over a broad cross-section of voters. With so much antipathy toward establishment politicians, some even argued that fewer Republicans would show up at the polls if Cagle won.

“Kemp is an outsider,” said Todd Sheffield, 24, a law student from Dublin, Ga., who wore a “Make America Great Again” cap. “The same people who dismiss him dismissed Trump. What happened? He won resoundingly.”

“He’s just a down-home, Southern guy, the kind that’d stop and talk to you,” agreed Ronald Foxworth, a retired paint contractor from Columbus, Ga., who wore a “Trump 45” jersey with a Statue of Liberty emblazoned across it. “Cagle’s the kind that’d snub you. He ain’t got the common touch.”

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