Brian Kemp Wins Georgia G.O.P. Runoff for Governor to Face Stacey Abrams

Brian Kemp celebrated his win in the Republican runoff in the Georgia gubernatorial race on Tuesday.

ATHENS, Ga. — Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, captured the Republican nomination for governor Tuesday, easily dispatching the preferred candidate of the state party establishment after a series of provocative ads that evoked President Trump’s incendiary politics and a well-timed endorsement from the president himself.

Mr. Kemp now faces Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, in a November general election that will test whether this rapidly changing Southern state prefers a Trump-style conservative or a progressive black woman.

“This is the state of Georgia: We are a red state,” Mr. Kemp told jubilant supporters in Athens, his hometown, as he quickly linked Ms. Abrams to Hillary Clinton, Representative Nancy Pelosi and a host of other national Democrats. “And for that matter, we don’t need the radical left telling us how to live, worship and raise our family.”

[Read an annotated version of Brian Kemp’s victory speech.]

According to results from The Associated Press, Mr. Kemp held a nearly 40-point lead in Tuesday’s runoff over his opponent, Casey Cagle, the state’s lieutenant governor. Georgia Democrats also chose candidates to compete for a pair of Atlanta-area House seats now held by Republicans who could prove vulnerable.

In the governor’s race, Mr. Kemp and Ms. Abrams will both likely recalibrate their appeals to try to reach Georgia’s growing population of moderate voters. But Mr. Kemp — whose hard-line campaign has featured ads in which he volunteers to round up undocumented immigrants and brandishes guns — will first have to unite his party, after an unusually bitter runoff that effectively ended last week when Mr. Trump endorsed him.

Mr. Trump offered congratulations to Mr. Kemp on Twitter on Wednesday morning. “Now go win against the open border, crime loving opponent that the Democrats have given you,” the president wrote.

Mr. Kemp, who received 26 percent of the vote in the May primary, far behind Mr. Cagle’s 39 percent, benefited from a series of fortuitous events leading up to his victory Tuesday, in which he won close to 70 percent of the vote despite being heavily outspent by Mr. Cagle. Mr. Kemp’s win was also the latest testament to the strength of Mr. Trump’s grip on the Republican electorate: Mr. Cagle, in a mournful essay Monday that amounted to an early concession, wrote that Mr. Trump’s intercession was a “kick in the gut.” On Tuesday, with all precincts reporting, Mr. Kemp won Mr. Cagle’s native Hall County, where his family has lived for generations, by 12 percentage points.

But what alarms Republican officials in Washington and Atlanta, where the outgoing governor, Nathan Deal, endorsed Mr. Cagle, is that Mr. Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Kemp may have made it harder to defeat Ms. Abrams in November.

Large swaths of suburban Atlanta swung away from the Republicans in 2016, recoiling from Mr. Trump’s divisive and racially tinged appeals. And Mr. Kemp has adopted the same approach, but even more vividly.

Mr. Kemp aired commercials that showed him wielding a shotgun that, he vowed, “no one’s taking away.” And he sat in a Ford F350 truck that he said he would use “just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.”

In a separate ad that many here believe helped propel him into the runoff, the secretary of state pointed a shotgun at a young man purportedly interested in dating one of his daughters.

And as secretary of state, Mr. Kemp backed so-called “religious freedom” legislation that has drawn strong opposition in the past from the business community and gay-rights groups.

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Mr. Kemp wasted little time on Tuesday night moving to the general election, complaining about how Ms. Abrams has attracted vocal support from Democrats from far beyond Georgia and depicting her as “an out-of-touch radical liberal who cares more for her billionaire backers” like George Soros than average Georgians.

Mr. Kemp also signaled that he would stick with Mr. Trump’s political playbook in the months ahead, explicitly decrying Democratic leaders and the “fake news media machine” he said would launch “vicious, baseless and constant” attacks.

“We cannot forget that tweet that we heard around Georgia,” Mr. Kemp said of Mr. Trump’s endorsement last week, and thanked Vice President Mike Pence for his support as well.

“They poured gasoline on the fire and fueled the Kemp surge to victory,” he said.

Democrats immediately attacked Mr. Kemp as an inept public official whose policies would jeopardize the state’s business-friendly reputation. But in a statement released soon after Mr. Kemp’s victory become apparent, the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party stopped just short of explicitly tying Mr. Kemp to President Trump.

Mr. Cagle appeared in a ballroom at an Atlanta hotel to concede about 90 minutes after the polls closed. Calling Mr. Kemp “a dear personal friend of mine for a long, long time,” Mr. Cagle urged his supporters to put aside the ugly primary fight and back Mr. Kemp against Ms. Abrams.

“I know that when you’re in the arena sometimes you get the boxing gloves out and there’s a lot of hits that go on,” Mr. Cagle said. “We have to rally around him in order to make sure we win in November.”

Mr. Kemp’s fiery language and attacks on undocumented immigrants and others raise questions about whether the state’s image-conscious corporate titans will rally to his side as they did with Mr. Deal, whose mild-mannered politics tempered the more conservative inclinations of the state legislature. Mr. Deal is leaving office because of term limits after eight years as governor.

Democrats have not won a governor’s race since 1998, and Ms. Abrams would not only be the first black governor here — she would also be the first black female governor in the country. She ran in her own primary as a down-the-line liberal, criticizing other Democrats who have sought to win by tailoring their message to appeal to the state’s rural conservatives.

But even if Republicans do maintain an advantage in Georgia, the nomination of Mr. Kemp in a year when suburban woman are flocking to Democrats could, at a minimum, force G.O.P. groups to spend money in a state they have safely counted in their column in recent years.

What is clear is that Mr. Kemp’s ads, in which he boasted about being “a politically incorrect conservative,” appealed far more to grass-roots conservatives in this Trumpian moment than Mr. Cagle’s decades-long experience in state government.

The commercials, as with most everything Trump-related, prompted eye rolling from establishment-aligned Republicans in private. And one of those Republicans snickering was Mr. Cagle himself.

Mr. Cagle, the lieutenant governor since 2007, spent much of this year’s race as the Republican front-runner. Yet well before Mr. Trump intervened in the campaign on Mr. Kemp’s behalf last week, Mr. Cagle encountered difficulty when he was recorded talking in blunt terms to a former opponent — recordings that were leaked out in extended and excruciating fashion.

Mr. Cagle was heard on tape saying the Republican primary had become a test of “who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest.” And he conceded that he had supported what he believed to be bad public policy in an effort to thwart an opponent’s fund-raising efforts and boost his own.

The recordings gave Mr. Kemp an opening. In a television commercial, he promptly declared, “If that’s not criminal, it should be.”

Seeing Mr. Cagle weakened politically, his rivals in Georgia and beyond seized on the recordings, which were surreptitiously made on an iPhone by Clay Tippins, who also ran for governor and placed fourth in the Republican primary.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who preceded Mr. Deal as governor, made the case for Mr. Kemp with the president following a cabinet meeting last week. And just a few hours later, the president caught much of the political world by surprise with a tweet in support of Mr. Kemp.

Mr. Trump’s intervention blindsided Republican governors, who have grown frustrated over his appetite for inserting himself in primaries for candidates who may struggle in the general election. And it irritated some White House aides who see Mr. Trump being used as a tool in rivalries that predate his presidency — in this case between Mr. Perdue and Mr. Deal. Many in the West Wing find little upside to the president taking sides in intraparty contests where both candidates are Trump loyalists.

But the degree to which Mr. Trump was pressed into the endorsement was made clear when, immediately after the endorsement, a rally featuring Mr. Kemp and Vice President Pence was scheduled for Saturday in Macon.

[Here’s how other pro-Trump and anti-Trump Republicans have fared.]

By Monday, Mr. Cagle wrote an open letter in which he said, “There’s nothing in a Republican primary runoff that’s more crushing than having the president endorse your opponent a week before the election.”

Mr. Cagle complained that Mr. Trump had “decided to do this because some Washington insiders who have weaseled their way into his ear convinced him to make a power play.”

On Tuesday afternoon, at a news conference in Atlanta, Mr. Cagle said he had been in weekly contact with the White House in pursuit of the president’s endorsement, and that Mr. Trump’s support for Mr. Kemp came “somewhat out of nowhere.” He said he had been told up until Mr. Trump tweeted his endorsement that the president would not take sides.

Mr. Cagle noted that Mr. Trump’s intervention placed him in opposition not only to the state’s sitting Republican governor but also to the National Rifle Association, which endorsed Mr. Cagle. The group’s incoming president, Lt. Col. Oliver North, appeared at three rallies for Mr. Cagle several days before Mr. Trump’s endorsement.

Beyond the governor’s race, Democrats here nominated Lucy McBath to take on Representative Karen Handel, in the suburban district that both parties spent millions on in a special election last year. And deeper into Atlanta’s exurbs, Democrats decided on Carolyn Bourdeaux to challenge Representative Rob Woodall, a conservative in his fourth term. Neither seat ranks among the Democrats’ most heavily targeted, but, with their upscale orientation, could grow competitive.

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