Who will get to put their name on this sign (among other perks of being Governor) / Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The First Weekly(ish) Update on the Race for the Governor’s Mansion

Summer is here. There’s pulled pork on every street corner. And candidates for Governor are stumping across the state to see who will succeed Nathan Deal as the head of state government in Georgia. Now that campaign season has returned (does it ever really end?), we’re going to check in on the race weekly in a new column on PeachPod.

Republicans have held control of the Governor’s mansion since 2003, and a collection of well-known insiders and relatively unknown outsiders make up the competitors for the Grand Old Party’s nomination in 2018. Running for the Republicans are:

  • Casey Cagle, the state’s sitting Lieutenant Governor and a long-time member of the state Senate.
  • Brian Kemp, Georgia Secretary of State and a former state senator.
  • Hunter Hill, a member of the state senate since 2013.
  • Michael Williams, also a member of the state senate since 2015.

Democrats are attempting a return to the Governor’s mansion for the first time since old Southern Democrats turned over control of the state to Republicans while the coalition of Democratic voters became younger, more diverse, and to date, not numerous enough to win statewide. Running for the Democrats are:

  • Stacey Abrams, the minority leader for Democrats in the Georgia House of Representatives
  • Stacey Evans, a member of the state house since 2011.

Here are some of the emerging stories we’re following as this race begins.

The Future of Georgia Democrats Divides Two Staceys

The race between the two Staceys continues the debate Democrats have been having since they lost control of the state in the early 2000s: Should Democrats try to regain power by appealing to moderate white voters and bring them back to the Democratic party or should Democrats embrace a diverse coalition of people who vote less often and work on getting them to the polls.

Abrams has embraced the latter strategy and taken her message of reaching out to non-white voters to the national stage. At her campaign kick-off, she was joined by Jason Kander, Missouri’s former Secretary of State who is working to enhance access to voting, and Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator known as a progressive champion to supporters of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Her campaign’s focus on bringing people of color to the polls builds off Abrams’ previous work with the New Georgia Project. The former Minority Leader founded the nonprofit voter registration group in 2013 to register 120,000 minority voters in advance of the 2014 midterm elections and register 170,000 minority voters before the 2016 presidential election. To date, that effort hasn’t helped Democrats flip Georgia — Jason Carter did not unseat Governor Deal in 2014 and President Trump carried Georgia on his way to the White House in 2016 — but finding new Democrats remains her strategy. On Saturday, Abrams told Democrats in Athens that “We need 200,000 new Democrats to turn out in November [2018] to win… I know we exist, but we have to find each other.”

The alternative approach for Democrats, one of trying to return moderate whites to the party, is an approach that has been designated to Evans more so than she’s actually embraced it. Evans’ early endorsement by Georgia’s last Democratic Governor, Roy Barnes, led Abrams to respond that the coalition that put Democrats like Barnes in office hasn’t existed in Georgia since the late 1990s.

But Evans’ introduction of herself to voters was certainly seen as an attempt to reach rural whites who share her experience of growing up poor. And with national Republicans leading a decades-long crusade to roll back public health care programs vital to rural communities, struggling whites might see Evans’ defense of popular programs like the HOPE Scholarship as better for them than Republicans’ perpetual promises of lower taxes and smaller government.

Williams Runs the Trump Playbook

Republicans are watching an experiment of their own as Senator Michael Williams, the first Georgia public official to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, has rolled out the Trump playbook in his attempt to secure the Republican nomination.

Williams entered the race with a speech at the Republican State Convention where he alleged, without evidence, that he was offered the chairmanship of the Senate’s powerful appropriations committee if he would not run for Governor.

Williams tried to hit establishment Republicans again last week when he invited the media and his supporters to a press conference where he would address the “reprehensible actions of Lt. Governor Casey Cagle at the State Capitol.” Fit with Trump-style name calling, Williams accused “Campaign Casey” of preventing some of Williams’ legislative proposals from getting hearings in the Senate and called for him to drop out of the race.

After saying he’d present “corroborating details” at the press conference, Williams was asked by the AJC’s Greg Bluestein if he had any documents or audio recordings to prove that Williams’ bills were blocked by Cagle. Williams grinned and responded that he was “not prepared to present that today.”

Bizarrely (at least to me), you can watch that exchange on Williams’ Facebook page (Williams’ and Bluestein’s exchange starts at the 10:00 minute mark):

But Williams’ most aggressive Trump play came when he said that Democrats should be held responsible for two alleged crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in Georgia.

As reported by Forsyth County News, Williams asked:

“Will the Democrats be held responsible for the rape and torture of this Gwinnett family? Will CNN push a camera in Chuck Schumer’s face and ask him to answer for the responsibility Democrats have in this incident and other incidents like it?”

He later pointed to a second alleged crime and reasserted his support for a federal deportation program. His vows to protect Georgians, not illegal immigrants, are reminiscent of Trump’s entry into the 2016 race, where he alleged that Mexico was sending rapists and criminals across the border and how he later cited criminal acts to justify his support for a border wall with Mexico.

Candidates Release First Fundraising Totals

For some actual numbers on the scoreboard, we turn to the financial disclosures now released by all of the campaigns. Combined, candidates from both parties raised or loaned themselves over $7 million for the first reporting period.

On the Republican side, Casey Cagle led the pack by raising $2.7 million with the support of many lobbyists and fixtures of the Gold Dome. Kemp, another well-known name across the state, came in second with $1.7 million raised.

Hunter Hill, the first to report his own fundraising total, proved he was a legitimate contender by raising over $1 million. In Sunday’s AJC, Hill dismissed Cagle’s big fundraising haul, saying

“I believe my leadership experiences in the private sector and three tours of duty as an Army Ranger matter more to Georgians than political connections in Atlanta… Casey can have the Capitol crowd. We’ll keep earning the support of hardworking Georgians.

Williams raised just over $51,000 from outside contributors, but he loaned his campaign $1 million during the reporting period.

On the Democratic side, Stacey Abrams edged out Stacey Evans in total fundraising. Abrams raised almost $474,000 compared to Evans’ $391,000 haul. But it is notable that Abrams is spending her contributions at a faster rate than Evans. Abrams spent $319,000 and has $222,000 cash-on-hand while Evans spent $49,000 and currently has $365,000 in her campaign coffers.

Abrams’ national profile suggests she should be able to bring in the kind of prolific fundraising totals that powered Jon Ossoff in his attempt to flip a deep red seat to the Democrats in a special election earlier this year. Although it is still early, it might be worth considering if there is any donor fatigue among progressive activists across the country and how this might impact Abrams’ ability to out raise Evans, who enjoys more support from the network of older Georgia Democrats like former Governors Barnes and Zell Miller.

We’ll check in with more on the Governor’s race next week.