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Opinion: Georgia Runoffs Offer Clues for November and Beyond

Lessons could be a test run for the rest of the nation

Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s beleaguered campaign for governor suffered another hit when President Donald Trump endorsed his opponent in Tuesday’s GOP primary runoff. (Moses Robinson/Getty Images file photo)
Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s beleaguered campaign for governor suffered another hit when President Donald Trump endorsed his opponent in Tuesday’s GOP primary runoff. (Moses Robinson/Getty Images file photo)

What if Democrats nominate the most progressive candidate they could find in 2020 and Republicans stay true to the base, which remains devoted to Donald Trump? What if Democrats choose only female candidates over men, on the theory that they’re the ultimate outsiders and would thus perform better than other challengers in the new rules of the Trump era?

And what if, under the rubble of tribal politics and I-need-a-shower-after-that kind of dirty primaries, someone could slip through the cracks who might be both interested in and capable of operating the technical, but essential, mechanics of government in the future?

Those are the existential questions of the moment for American politics, but they’re also all on Tuesday’s Georgia primary runoff ballot. Buried in the obscurity and midheat of summer, the contests offer a near-perfect test run for what to expect across the country in two year’s time.

The top of the ticket belongs to Georgia’s longtime lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle, and veteran Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Although Cagle won the most votes in the June Republican primary, a salacious July has seen him hit round after round of headlines few could weather after a defeated rival secretly recorded a conversation with Cagle talking about backing bad bills for votes — and then proceeded to leak the tape in portions for maximum damage.


Even before that mess, the usually measured Cagle left Republicans scratching their heads earlier this year when he threatened hometown Delta Air Lines’ tax credits over what he called mistreatment of conservatives and the NRA. The end result was a cocktail of confusion over what kind of a Republican Cagle really is — a conservative, or a CINO — Conservative in Name Only.

Punching through that opening has been Kemp, the hard-to-name secretary of state of Georgia for the last eight years, who burst on to the 2018 campaign scene with a controversial ad in which he points a shotgun at a teenage boy who is “interested” in Kemp’s daughter. Another ad featured Kemp bragging, “I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself,” before adding, “Yep, I just said that.”

You get the picture.

In a normal year, Cagle would still probably be cruising to the nomination with the state’s GOP establishment squarely behind him in a state where Chamber of Commerce Republicans usually have the last word.

But then last Wednesday, without warning, President Donald Trump — hours after a Cabinet meeting in which he tried to walk back his use of the word “would” instead of “wouldn’t” in talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s election hacking — tweeted his support for the secretary of state: “Brian Kemp is running for Governor of the great state of Georgia. … I give him my full and total endorsement.”

No one, including the candidates, could explain why Trump endorsed Kemp when he did or why he got into the GOP primary at all. Even Kemp had no idea the endorsement was coming.

But the result, if the polls are predictive, could see Kemp moving on to face off against the Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, the Yale-educated attorney and former state House minority leader, who has become a superstar on the left. Not only could she be the first black female governor in the country, she has also ripped up the traditional Yellow Dog Democrats’ playbook of moderation and written her own progressive how-to manual. Instead of trying to appeal to disaffected middle-of-the-road Republicans, Abrams created a nonprofit to register hundreds of thousands of new liberal Democratic voters over the past several years.

A contest between Kemp and Abrams would quickly become a battle for the bases, instead of Georgia’s traditional contest for the middle, which Cagle would be better suited for. Without a more moderate option on the ballot, Abrams could suddenly be the least extreme choice for wayward moderates.

Watch: Democratic Candidates Raise Millions in Second Quarter Fundraising

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Blue tea leaves

Democrats will have their own tea leaves to read Tuesday night with the runoffs in the 6th and 7th districts, which each includes a woman running against a man without political experience, as Roll Call’s Simone Pathé reported earlier this week

The 6th District race features Kevin Abel, a South Africa-born businessman, against Lucy McBath, a national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, whose main reason for running hinges on the murder of her son at the hands of a criminal with a gun. Abel has derided her as a one-issue candidate, but what issue could get more women to the polls than the safety of their children?

The 7th District runoff features Carolyn Bourdeaux, the state’s former budget chief, and David Kim, an entrepreneur. The district includes a large Korean-American population that few politicians have appealed to as directly as Kim has.

Both seats are held by GOP incumbents who would be safe in a typical election year. But each district includes large swaths of GOP territory that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 on the strength of mostly female anti-Trump energy. Can female candidates better harness that for Democrats and score upsets this fall? These two runoffs will provide an early answer.

Finally, the Republican runoff ballot features a contest for one of the least publicized, but most important, positions in government at either the state or federal level — the secretary of state position that Kemp is vacating with questions still unanswered about the safety and security of Georgia elections.

The race between former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle and state Rep. Brad Raffensperger has seen a detailed discussion on preventing election hacking and ballot manipulation. Belle Isle, in particular, seemed to already have a plan to prevent cyberattacks on the state’s elections in the future. The winner will face former Democratic Rep. John Barrow in November.

If you’re looking into a crystal ball to guess whether President Trump will sink or save a GOP candidate, whether women will save the Democrats, and whether there’s any hope for the future, look South instead Tuesday night. The answers are waiting in Georgia.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.


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