When the polls closed the night of the Republican primary, it looked like it would be Casey Cagle’s campaign to lose and lose he did. What is most striking about the entire process is that he hit a ceiling in the primary and could not persuade the high number of undecided voters to come his way.
Cagle took for granted that voters knew him since he had been the state’s lieutenant governor for twelve years, but had no strong record of his own to run on, having been in the shadow of two separate governors. In February, I had asked Cagle what record he would run on that was separate from the records of Governors Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal. Cagle had just one issue — a public education program that paired high school students with companies for vocational and mentor training. Everything else was based on his steadiness, competence, and reassuring presence with Fortune 500 companies.
Cagle’s campaign went about shaping the runoff instead of building on Cagle’s core competencies. The campaign started running attack ads against Hunter Hill and Clay Tippins. Hill had a slight change of getting into the runoff. Tippins had no chance of getting into the runoff. It was bizarre to see Cagle pouring energy into attack either, let alone both. Cagle managed to secure 39% of the primary vote. It would be the last time he came in first place.
Like the dog that catches the car, the campaign got exactly what it wanted. Brian Kemp made the runoff with 25% of the vote. Hill had 18% of the vote and Tippins wound up with 12% of the vote. A fourth candidate, Michael Williams, got less than 5% of the vote. As a general rule, when lower tier candidates attract a following, they are attracting loyal support. In other words, Cagle headed into a runoff against a man who had gotten a quarter of the vote and alienated almost thirty additional percent of the voters by attacking their preferred candidate. He also earned the enmity of the candidates. Going back to 1990, I have been unable to find any statewide runoff in either party where all the candidates that lost in the primary rallied to the second place finisher. But that happened here. Hill, Tippins, and Williams all became vocal Kemp supporters.
An under appreciated aspect of the race is that Cagle consistently lost straw polls at local Republican events in the run up to the primary. Grassroots activists did not care for him. They did not trust him. But the Cagle campaign assumed there were plenty of Republican voters out there who did not go to those events. Instead of circling back and trying to win those grassroots voters’ support and instead of trying to woo the Hill and Tippins’ voters, Cagle went negative against Kemp immediately. He made it all about Kemp. He also made it impossible to overcome what happened next.
In making an effort to get Tippins’ endorsement, Cagle invited Tippins to his office unaware of Tippins recording the conversation. On the recording, Cagle clearly did not hold Republican primary voters in high regard and admitted he backed a school choice policy he personally hated because he needed to stop Hill from getting a campaign contribution. Voters who already did not trust Cagle now had more distrust. Cagle would say or do anything to get elected. The Cagle campaign compounded the problem by doubling down on Cagle’s statements and blaming Brian Kemp, instead of owning it and apologizing.
As the campaign wore on, Governor Nathan Deal endorsed Cagle. This actually amplified the damage. Deal had said repeatedly that he would not endorse. To come out and do it once Cagle got in trouble reminded voters of the deep distrust they have for their own party’s leadership in Georgia. From the religious liberty issue to faith based adoptions to campus carry, the grassroots of the GOP in Georgia have been seething with rage over repeated lies by their leadership and now knew, from the Cagle tape, that the feelings of contempt went both ways. On each of those issues, Georgia’s Republican leaders had campaigned for the issues then made sure they died each legislative session, often publicly. Cagle had been involved and the party grassroots knew it.
Lastly, and most destructively, Cagle, who had supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 election, closed his campaign strongly suggesting President Trump endorsed him and falsely attacking Kemp as a Kasich supporter. Multiple sources in and around both the Kemp campaign and White House tell me that pushed Trump to get involved for Kemp, the man he credited with helping him with the Presidential nomination by setting up the so-called SEC primary. The feedback loop on the trust issue pushed voters to Kemp and the President’s endorsement kept them there. It was too late for Cagle to win them back. Cagle not only lost his old state senate district, but he also lost his home county to Kemp, who will now head to November as Casey Cagle, after twenty-four years, leaves Georgia politics.