Guns, illegal immigration steal the show at Georgia Republican gubernatorial debate

The candidates called each other out on supporting firearm legislation and endorsement of President Donald Trump
Georgia Republican Governor Debate
(L-R) Casey Cagle, Hunter Hill, Brian Kemp, Clay Tippins, and Michael Williams at the Atlanta Press Club debate on Thursday

Photograph by Sean Keenan

In a political contest that has contained explosions and chainsaws, candidate impersonators, and a “Deportation Bus,” among other peculiarities, the Republican gubernatorial candidates aiming to claim Governor Nathan Deal’s post convened at Georgia Public Broadcasting on Thursday to tout their conservative platforms and to call foul on each other’s indiscretions. With five candidates in the primary race—Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, Hunter Hill, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Clay Tippins, and state Senator Michael Williams—the May 22 election will likely end in a runoff.

At the one-hour debate, presented by the Atlanta Press Club and aired on GPB, discussion and debate about illegal immigration and gun laws dominated, while talks of tax reform, education, religious freedom, and regulation-slashing made brief cameos.

On guns—and other policy matters—the candidates can seem so politically aligned that you might have to squint to spot the differences of opinion. Still, they traded jabs over who’s the biggest supporter of the Second Amendment. Hill (a former Army Ranger) claimed Tippins (an ex-Navy SEAL) has “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking my stance on guns.” He’s likely referring to a Team Tippins campaign commercial that featured a Hill look-a-like and claimed Hill “talks like he’s Rambo, but he’s really a Benedict Arnold who’s for gun control.”

The first question from the panel asked Hill about a proposal he made in a TV ad that advocated for allowing 18-year-old Georgians to purchase handguns, which followed a February statement he made advocating to raise the minimum legal purchasing age to 21. Gun lobbies didn’t take kindly to what Hill has called a flub. “Do you think you’re catching hell for no reason?” asked panelist and former Macon Telegraph editor Charles Richardson.

“I was very clear that I misspoke when I said that, and we immediately cleared the record,” Hill defended. But the attacks didn’t let up. Some of his opponents bashed him for earning poor marks—by GOP standards—from the National Rifle Association. Hill said he’d previously landed a C+ grade because he “filled out a questionnaire wrong.”

“The thing that’s ridiculous about this is my record is strong,” he told Atlanta after the debate. “I voted every time I had a chance for a bill that expanded our Second Amendment rights. That’s why I [now] have an A.”

Cagle, the Republican front-runner in the polls, has claimed an endorsement from the NRA and said people should scope his record of protecting gun rights. “During campaign time, people talk one way, but you have to look at the record,” he said, noting he’s long been a staunch defender of the Second Amendment. Cagle has backed pro-gun legislation, such as the controversial “campus carry” measure in 2017, but not all Republicans agree on Cagle’s record. Advocacy group Georgia Gun Owners took issue with what they called blocking of “constitutional carry” legislation, and last month, Team Williams spokesman Seth Weathers told the Gainesville Times that Cagle has a “flip-flopping record on gun rights.” (In the same article, the Tippins camp also dismissed Cagle’s NRA endorsement.)

A bulk of Thursday’s debate, however, was on illegal immigration, and everyone at a podium claimed to be the hardest of hardliners on the issue. But Williams arguably takes the cake as the most aggressive advocate for an illegal border-crossing crackdown. His new campaign vehicle, aptly named the “Deportation Bus,” has been carting the candidate around the state, raising eyebrows, prompting protests, and, yesterday, breaking down. (Williams told Atlanta he believes someone put water in the gas tank.)

Adjacent Williams on this issue is Kemp, who’s flexing his own “big truck . . . to round up criminal illegals” in a televised ad. Kemp touted his “track and deport” plan to hone in on undocumented immigrants and reroute them to their respective countries of origin. “Georgia, unfortunately, has become a hub for the Mexican drug cartels,” he said. “We’re going to run those criminal illegals out of our state.”

Hill maneuvered around a question about his stance on the Barack Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) statute: “Illegal immigration is undermining the fabric of our country,” Hill said. “We’re a nation of laws; the Constitution is the foundation, and we’re allowing cities, counties, and states to undermine federal law on illegal immigration . . . We have to build a border [wall]; we have to have legislators across this country that support Donald Trump’s agenda.”

Hill also said Georgia needs to take a close look at long-term  government benefit reform as a way to deter undocumented immigrants from entering the country. “[Once] we start addressing the underlying causes that are driving illegal immigration,” he said, “ . . . we can start looking at that other issue later”—likely a nod to DACA.

Cagle said he’s fought to outlaw sanctuary cities, and he recently filed a complaint against the city of Decatur, claiming that a Decatur law that blocks city police from arresting someone solely on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer request is against state law. He also supported Senate Bill 452, which he called “one of the toughest illegal immigration bills in the country,” as it traveled through the legislature this past session. (The bill would have mandated local law enforcement and courts to alert ICE if they discover someone is living in the country illegally.)

Cagle has also spoken out in favor of President Trump’s request for states to send troops from their National Guard branches to America’s Southern border.

The debate, at times, drifted into tangents about who of the pack was the truest Trumpist. Williams, who likes to note he was Georgia’s first elected official to endorse the Trump’s 2016 campaign, raised an eyebrow about Kemp’s commitment to the commander-in-chief.

“Do you really think it’s fair and honest to tell Georgia voters that you support our president, when you wouldn’t support him in the primary against Hillary Clinton?” he asked, citing Kemp’s lack of an official endorsement.

Kemp said he was busy with the Super Tuesday at the time, but that he’s always fully supported the president. “Let’s be clear; I was the first person to invite Donald Trump to come to Georgia before he even announced his campaign—when he was at 1 or 2 percent [in preliminary polls].” Those plans didn’t pan out, Kemp said, due to the Charleston church massacre. As for why he didn’t endorse Trump thereafter, he said he was never invited to do so. “Had I been asked to be on an endorsement list, I certainly would have.”

Thursday’s debate also briefly touched on the religious freedom restoration acts (RFRA) that tend to surface in the General Assembly each legislative session. Tippins is the only conservative running who hasn’t vowed to sign (undrafted) “religious liberty” legislation. “I’ll do whatever it takes to protect religious freedom,” he told his opponents and the panel of moderators. “What I won’t do is go around pledging to sign something I haven’t read. That’s something only a fool would do.”

The final debates for gubernatorial debate will be hosted by WSB-TV and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday at 1 and 2 p.m., respectively.

Learn more about all of the candidates running in the May 22 primary here.

Watch the full Republican debate on GPB