Casey Cagle vs. Brian Kemp: A quick guide to the Republican runoff candidates for Georgia governor

Georgia Governor Runoff Casey Cagle Brian Kemp
Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp

Photographs courtesy of the Cagle and Kemp Campaigns respectively

At the end of the Georgia primary election on May 22, gubernatorial candidates Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp had earned 38.95 percent and 25.52 percent of the Republican vote respectively, pushing opponents Clay Tippins, Hunter Hill, and Michael Williams out of the running. But because neither won more than 50 percent of the vote needed to win the candidacy outright, they advanced to the July 24 runoff to determine who will face Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams in November.

The runoff vote could be a tough choice for many Republicans since these candidates have so much in common: both are Christian businessmen who attended public high schools and universities in Georgia, and they’ve been involved in politics for around 15 years each. Further, both claim to be unwavering in their pro-life beliefs and fancy themselves staunch defenders of the Second Amendment. They have both vocally praised President Donald Trump on social media and in speeches during their campaigns. (Although neither endorsed him in the 2016 primary, they did both support him in the general election).

If elected, both candidates pledge to advocate for rural communities and have both been singing from the conservative hymnbook used throughout the years: they’ll support small businesses, improve statewide infrastructure (mainly roads), protect the state’s already lax gun laws, curb illegal immigration, and cut taxes. 

So how to choose if, after the barrage of negative ads, accusations, and endorsements, you’re still an undecided GOP voter? (Note: Only voters who cast a Republican ballot in the May primary or who did not vote in the May primary can cast a Republican ballot on July 24.) The two differ slightly in a few key areas: Medicaid expansion; transportation, and their campaign personas.

Casey Cagle
Casey Cagle

Photograph courtesy of Casey Cagle Campaign

Meet Casey Cagle

Raised by a single mother, the 52-year-old lieutenant governor grew up in Gainesville and attended Georgia Southern University on a football scholarship. After a leg injury ended his football career at age 20, he left college in 1986 to return home to Gainesville where he purchased a tuxedo rental store. He later opened several more locations in North Georgia. In 1999, he founded Southern Heritage Bank and served as chair until it merged with Gainesville Bank & Trust in 2004.

Cagle ran for the Georgia Senate in the 49th District in 1994 and won against incumbent Democrat Jane Hemmer, becoming the youngest member of the State Senate at age 28. He was re-elected five times and became the first Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2006, a position he’s since been re-elected to twice. He had planned to run for governor in the 2010 race, but dropped out early, citing a battle with a degenerative spinal condition. He launched his current gubernatorial campaign in April 2017.

The Gainesville Republican has long been viewed as a business-friendly establishment conservative who was next-in-line (or, at least, well ahead of everyone else) for the governor’s office. But in February, Cagle surprised the business community when he controversially threatened to “kill any tax legislation that benefits [Delta Air Lines],” one of Georgia’s top employers, after the airline ended discounts for National Rifle Association members following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He made the threat while a bill containing a major sales tax exemption for jet fuel was up for consideration in the General Assembly; the Senate removed the jet fuel clause and passed the bill. The NRA, with whom Cagle has an A+ rating, has endorsed him in the gubernatorial race.

Republicans and Democrats alike have criticized Cagle during this campaign in light of several incriminating audio recordings leaked by Clay Tippins, his rival in the GOP primary, and later Brian Kemp. Kemp released one tape earlier this month in which Cagle said, “This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest.”

Cagle advocates for healthcare reform and said he would not oppose using federal funds to expand Medicaid, a federal program that provides free or low-cost health insurance to people with low income or who live with certain disabilities and health conditions, in Georgia as long as the state designed its program to require able-bodied recipients to work (which the Trump administration formally encouraged in January). On his campaign website, Cagle is quoted as saying the employment requirement could be fulfilled by “working, volunteering, or mastering skills for an in-demand career by enrolling in a job-training course.”

On education, he says teachers and students are burdened with too many tests, favors charter schools, and support school choice. Earlier this year, Cagle supported House Bill 217, which nearly doubled the tax-credit cap on nonprofit organizations that fund scholarships for students to attend private schools. But Kemp claims Cagle only did so for political reasons; in June, Kemp leaked another snippet of Tippins’s recorded conversation with Cagle in which the lieutenant governor says that the legislation was bad in “a thousand different ways.” On the tape, Cagle said he supported it just to prevent Hunter Hill, a gubernatorial rival, from receiving a multimillion-dollar infusion of campaign cash from a foundation known for supporting charter school programs. In a statement response to the tape, Cagle told WSB-TV that he “openly and honestly” answered Tippins’s questions that he’s a “longtime and consistent supporter of conservative reforms that expand school choice.” He said HB 217 “wasn’t perfect” and that neither side got exactly what they wanted, and closed, “As governor, I’ll advocate for and sign legislation that expands education options and opportunity.” Cagle also wants to expand Georgia’s College and Career Academy Network, a program he helped launch that allows high school students to graduate with an associate’s degree or industry certification, and focus on third-grade reading.

Cagle, who as lieutenant governor has been at the center of discussions under the Gold Dome about additional funding for roads and transit through the Great Recession until today, says the state needs to take “bold steps” to help people and goods move throughout the state. Transit, particularly bus-rapid transit, should play a role in the larger transportation network, he says, and the state should develop a plan to determine what works best. He’s already floated the idea of tunneling under the east side of metro Atlanta to alleviate traffic, a proposal that is sure to face opposition.

Term-limited Governor Nathan Deal endorsed Cagle as his successor on June 16, saying the challenge of the next governor will be “to not go backwards, but to go forward. And for that reason, I believe Casey Cagle will be the best candidate.”

Brian Kemp
Brian Kemp

Photograph courtesy of Brian Kemp Campaign

Meet Brian Kemp

Kemp, 53, grew up in Athens and attended the University of Georgia, where he earned a Bachelor’s of Science in agriculture. Appointed as Georgia secretary of state in 2010 and elected to the position later that year, he previously served in the Georgia Senate from 2003 until 2007. He owns Kemp Properties, an Athens-based real estate agency, and other companies in agribusiness and financial services and investment. 

Kemp has chosen to cast himself this election cycle as the “politically incorrect conservative”—a tactic that appears to be working if recent polls showing him leading Cagle are accurate. Kemp caught national attention for a controversial advertisement that depicts him jokingly threatening a young man who is interested in dating one of his daughters. Kemp points a shotgun at the teenager and asks him to recite the largest planks of his platform and two qualities he must have to date Kemp’s daughter—”respect and a healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment.” Critics called the ad insensitive, especially in the wake of school shootings and gun violence across the country. But Kemp’s supporters and social media followers found his vocal defiance of political correctness refreshing. Like Cagle, Kemp has an A+ rating from the NRA.

More recently, some Cagle supporters—led by Republican state Senator Renee Unterman of Buford—called for criminal investigations into donations Kemp received from business leaders in industries that he regulates as Georgia secretary of state. Unterman also alleged a “quid pro quo scenario” after Kemp attended a fundraiser hosted by the then owner of two Massage Envy locations that employed therapists accused of sexual harassment. Kemp’s campaign maintained that he had not violated any campaign finance laws by accepting the donations or attending the fundraiser.

Despite favoring Wisconsin’s GOP-designed expansion program as a Georgia state senator, Kemp now says he opposes any expansion to Medicaid. He called for repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and says in his New Day for Rural Georgia campaign, launched in 2017, that he supports “Georgia-focused, free-market based healthcare reform that will lower costs and expand service and options” and that he will “grow tele-medicine, support incentives for medical providers in rural Georgia, and work with community leaders to save struggling hospitals.”

On education, Kemp aligns with Cagle on his views on standardized testing, charter schools, and school choice. Kemp supports increasing the tax-credit cap on nonprofit organizations that fund scholarships for students to attend private schools; his New Day in Rural Georgia plan includes support for doubling these scholarships and promoting charter schools in rural areas with underperforming public schools. He has also been vocal with plans to end Common Core, a federal math and reading standard used by 40 other states that critics such as influential teachers’ union the National Education Association argue limits students and hamstrings teachers. Kemp has also promised to appoint councils of parents and teachers for “immediate” review of current education standards including Common Core, launch a test-run of Educational Saving Account initiatives among military families, reduce standardized testing, and more.

Though transportation is among Kemp’s priorities, he is skeptical as to whether the state should provide the stepped-up funding it only recently started giving to transit systems to operate buses and boost MARTA stations. He’s argued that cash for transit is best generated on the local level.

Kemp has been endorsed by Hunter Hill and Michael Williams, two former opponents who did not advance from the Republican primaries. Like Cagle, he also enjoys support from a sizable number of state and U.S. representatives and Second Amendment group GeorgiaCarry. Most notably, President Trump endorsed Kemp on July 17 in a tweet that praised him for being “tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration.” The president also wrote that Kemp “loves our Military and our Vets and protects our Second Amendment.”