Can a staunchly Trump Republican become the next Georgia governor?

Republican candidate Michael Williams proudly waves the MAGA banner. Is it a strategy for success or failure?
Michael Wiliams Georgia
Michael Williams

Photograph courtesy of Michael Williams

A late April weekday morning found Michael Williams on the phone, sitting in the little metal building that is his Gainesville campaign office. A few red “Williams for Governor signs” decorated the walls of the otherwise sparse interior. Once off the phone, Williams mentioned he’d later be on his way to Valdosta—250 miles away as the crow files. On the desk where he sat: a computer, campaign brochures, a book on Kansas tax policy, papers, other peoples’ business cards, a few empty bottles and cans that once held energy drinks.

And a red “Make America Great Again” cap.

It’s not something many of his fellow Georgia Gold Dome Republicans would put front and center—the red cap and its associated slogan aren’t a symbol of harmony and consensus. It might not be the thing to wear when trying to, say, woo giant West Coast tech firms like Amazon to open a headquarters in Georgia, or to greet moderate voters in the metro Atlanta suburbs, where some once-red districts turned blue in the last presidential election.

Georgia’s Republican leaders do offer amens for President Donald Trump’s promises of public works spending, money to deepen the port of Savannah, and the federal tax cut passed last year. But the border wall? The attempted travel ban on people from certain Muslim countries visiting the U.S.? Trying to restrict transgender people from military service? When Georgia’s top Republican elected leaders contact Washington, these aren’t generally the issues atop their agenda.

But the Williams campaign isn’t afraid to fully embrace the president and his policies.

“I was the first one that came out publicly and endorsed Donald Trump” among state elected officials, Williams says—a fact that’s also proclaimed in bold font on his campaign homepage.

The candidate behind the desk in Gainesville, a perfectly polite CPA in an unremarkable office, contrasts with the #MAGA-loaded bravado of his campaign. There was the infamous bump stock giveaway announced just after the phrase entered America’s vocabulary last fall, when the Las Vegas shooter used one to accelerate gunfire that killed 58 people near the Mandalay Bay hotel. And there was the picture of him with armed militia members at a Piedmont Park rally against Sharia. And the time he said in a press release that “every murder, every rape, and every crime committed by an illegal against an American citizen is enabled by Democrats like [former House Minority leader and current Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Stacey Abrams.” Or the recent press release on “culture rot” at the hands of liberals, on the occasion of the Boy Scouts of America changing the name of its program for 11- to 17-year-olds from “Boy Scouts” to “Scouts BSA.”

“Imagine the outcome of World War II if the Greatest Generation had been raised by these politically correct bedwetters. You’d be reading this in German,” it read.

There’s even a reality star cameo: the chairman of his campaign is Dog the Bounty Hunter, the Hawaii- and Colorado-based subject of the eponymous early 2000s TV show. On Twitter, Williams keeps up a steady patter of snark for Casey Cagle, Brian Kemp, and Hunter Hill—other Republicans in the race. A lot of those tweets are tagged #WilliamsVEstablishment.

From a campaign point of view, that might seem a little tricky. Doesn’t a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination need the votes of the establishment?

“No,” Williams says. “Look at Donald Trump. He is definitely not establishment. Establishments on both sides, Republican and Democrat, were against him and he still won.”

While he says his campaign has a “huge” base of Trump supporters, Williams also says he has supporters among medical marijuana advocates (he’s for in-state cultivation of the plant for medical uses), Log Cabin Republicans, and in the cryptocurrency community. (Williams has referred to himself before as the “Blockchain Senator” when he and Sen. Joshua McKoon sponsored a state senate bill that would have allowed Georgians to pay their state taxes in Bitcoin. It didn’t make it through the legislative session. He also had several servers that were mining cryptocurrency in the basement of his Gainesville office, all of which were stolen this week.)

“We have all of these little groups of people that feel like they’ve kind of been left out, that they’ve kind of been ostracized, and they see that “Williams v. Establishment” and think, ‘This guy’s out there, and he’s fighting​ for us. The people, not the​ current power base,” Williams says.

Williams understands there are people who are rubbed the wrong way by what he calls the “personality” of Trump. To those folks, Williams offers his platform: eliminating the state income tax, shrinking the size of government, and rooting out corruption.

But in addition to benefiting from the electoral college and an unpopular opponent, Trump’s 2016 campaign was preceded by decades of celebrity. He literally needed no introduction to Georgia voters. Williams does, says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia and a career-long student of Georgia politics. “As a state senator, you represent essentially two percent of the state. You’ve got to introduce yourself to a whole lot of people,” Bullock says.

As of early May, Williams was absent from TV ads. Bullock explains that it’s hard enough for a campaign to get enough volunteers without buying airtime on expensive metro Atlanta TV. And the closer it gets to election day, the harder it is for any one new ad to break through the noise of the others.

A late April poll of 507 likely GOP primary voters put Williams in fifth place at 3.2 percent. (Or sixth place, if you count “undecided.”) The margin of error is 4.4 points. He and his team denounced the poll as poorly done and over-representative of high-earners. But in a way, Williams also seemed proud of the showing. He says the pollsters—the University of Georgia for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—worked hard to find respondents that would fit the narrative they wanted. He claimed his campaign has internal polling that puts Team Williams higher, but the campaign did not follow up with specific numbers.

“We know [the low polling] isn’t true. And the more they try to ostracize us and dismiss us, the more avid our supporters become,” says Williams.