Culture wars debates shape Georgia GOP race for governor

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp have pledged deeper tax cuts and tighter spending. But those fiscal policies have been vastly overshadowed by divisive campaign promises revolving around social issues that have dominated their campaigns for governor.

The two Republican candidates in the July 24 runoff for governor have traded barbs over who would be the bigger champion of “religious liberty” measures that have stalled in the Legislature and who would best advocate for stiff new abortion limits.

They've scrapped over how aggressively they would expand gun rights, how fiercely they'd back President Donald Trump and how far they'd go to fight illegal immigration.

In short, they’ve tried not to give the other an inch in the red-meat debates that energize the conservative voters who will decide this month’s contest.

Even Cagle has privately acknowledged the race to the right on social issues has been exhausting, lamenting the escalating push to woo conservatives in a secretly recorded conversation with Clay Tippins, a former GOP rival.

“This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest,” he said in the 50-second recording, which was taped by Tippins and released Monday by Kemp’s campaign.

It's a parallel to the Democratic race, which featured left-leaning promises for gun control measures, new financial incentives for lower-income Georgians and pledges to decriminalize some drug offenses.

Stacey Abrams, however, was able to turn her full attention to the November vote after trouncing her Democratic rival in May. Her Republican opponents, meanwhile, have spent the past seven weeks in an escalating fight over social issues that’s blotted out other policies.

That fight is playing out in pricey ads bombarding the airwaves, including a series of provocative Kemp ads featuring shotguns, chain saws and a pickup truck he said he'd use to "round up criminal illegals" himself.

And it plays a major role on the campaign trail, where each candidate tries to score with conservative audiences. At a recent campaign stop in Toccoa, Cagle was showered with applause when he promised new drug testing and work requirements for those seeking some safety-net benefits.

“We’ve got to get those people off the couch and back in the labor force,” Cagle said. “We are not going to let them sit there and game the system anymore.”

At roughly the same time, Kemp was campaigning in southeast Georgia on a pledge to crack down on gang activity and create a new "criminal alien database" to track immigrants in the country illegally.

In doing so, both are deviating from the path forged by Gov. Nathan Deal, who has tried to navigate a tricky course between his party’s conservative activists and more establishment Republicans.

Both Cagle and Kemp have pledged to sign a “religious liberty” measure like the one Deal vetoed over concerns that it would amount to state-sanctioned discrimination of same-sex couples.

Both have picked fights with Atlanta City Hall after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms blocked the city jail from housing more federal detainees facing deportation, threatening to upend the warm city-state relations that prevailed over the past decade.

And Cagle has called for a boycott of movie director Judd Apatow after he criticized Trump, leading to concerns it could strain the ties Georgia has built with Hollywood thanks to a lucrative film tax credit that has transformed the state into a major filmmaking hub.

‘Not the way’

The dueling Republicans have strategic reasons for the tough talk.

The electorate that will pick the nominee this month is expected to be a smaller and more conservative bloc than what showed up in May. And though the candidates’ stances could make it harder to pivot to a broader electorate in the fall, they’re betting Abrams will have the same difficulties.

Already, Republicans are slamming her over her debt to the Internal Revenue Service — she's said she's paying off the more than $50,000 she owes — and for stances that include decriminalizing marijuana, reversing a tax cut to pay for a Medicaid expansion and removing the Confederate faces from Stone Mountain.

Georgia GOP Chairman John Watson said Abrams is dead set on raising taxes — and he adds that “before Abrams forces this tax increase on Georgians, she should pay her own.”

Taking an above-the-fray approach, Abrams has emphasized kitchen-table issues such as health care and education, saying she would juice the economy by expanding Medicaid and devote more funding to the public school system.

“They are making the choices they think are right for their party, but Georgia Democrats are focused on decisions that are right for Georgia families,” Abrams said. “We know that fighting over social issues is not the way to lift up families.”

In the meantime, the two Republicans have ramped up their conservative appeals as the runoff nears.

As early voting began last week, Kemp highlighted his proposal to outlaw abortions after six weeks that would be among the nation's toughest restrictions. Cagle took a similar stance, saying he'll "defend life at all stages" and would sign any anti-abortion legislation that reaches his desk.

Both would send Georgia National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico to help prevent illegal immigration, and both brandish endorsements from gun rights groups. The two each support "constitutional carry" policy to let more gun owners conceal and carry handguns without a permit — though Cagle embraced the proposal after initially opposing it.

How those social issues play with conservative voters will shape the runoff. At Cagle’s Toccoa rally, many voters praised him for tough talk on illegal immigration and gun rights. Others were left unimpressed.

Christian Watson, an 18-year-old student who considers himself a conservative Republican, said he’s planning to vote for down-ticket Republicans but skip the governor’s race on this month’s ballot. The reason? He’s not interested in the back-and-forth on cultural issues.

“I’m looking for someone who has a passion for limited and transparent government,” he said. “And I haven’t seen that yet. Not even close.”

2018 campaign

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates in a busy election year. Previous stories have focused on topics such as gun rights, immigration and tax policy. Look for more at as the state approaches the next political milepost, the July 24 Republican runoff for governor.

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