Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican base was on full display in Georgia on Tuesday. Brian Kemp, who got a late endorsement from the president, absolutely crushed Casey Cagle in the GOP gubernatorial run-off. Kemp won nearly 70 percent of the two-way vote, a staggering reversal from May, when he finished a distant second to Cagle in a crowded primary field.
Trump, as Trump does, wasted no time crowing about Kemp’s victory on Twitter on Wednesday. But as has been the case in other GOP primaries this year, Trump again appeared to have been a major factor in this one. He endorsed Kemp via tweet last week and dispatched Mike Pence to the state to stump with Kemp over the weekend. And Kemp himself spent the primary and runoff playing to the MAGA crowd with campaign ads in which he boasted about his conservative-culture-war credentials like owning guns, saying Merry Christmas, standing for the national anthem, and driving a “big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself.”
Cagle, the state’s lieutenant governor, had the backing of his boss, term-limited Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, along with the rest of Georgia’s GOP establishment, and he had long been seen as the prohibitive favorite. But that changed after Trump unexpectedly backed Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state—a decision reportedly motivated by an old beef between Deal and former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who now serves as Trump’s secretary of agriculture.
Kemp won Tuesday’s runoff by 38 points, 69 percent to 31 percent. That margin represents a 51-point swing from where things finished in May, when Cagle bested Kemp by 13 points, 39 percent to 26 percent.
Cagle didn’t do himself any favors when he was caught on tape after the primary talking a little too frankly with Clay Tippins, a former rival who didn’t make the runoff. Tippins surreptitiously recorded that conversation and then provided a portion of it to local media in June, in which Cagle admitted he had supported a “bad public policy” in order to help his own fundraising. That was only a prelude to a second clip from the same conversation released by Kemp’s campaign in early July. In it, Cagle lamented that the GOP primary had turned into a contest of “who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest.”
That quote garnered plenty of press and put Cagle on the defensive. But internal polling conducted by Cagle’s allies suggest the true inflection point came a few weeks later when Trump endorsed his rival on July 18:
Internal polling tends to be self-serving, so take those exact numbers with a grain of salt, but the convenient explanation can still be the correct one.
Cagle appeared to see the writing on the wall even before the first votes were counted Tuesday. “There’s nothing in a Republican primary runoff that’s more crushing than having the President endorse your opponent less than a week before the election,” he wrote in an essay published to his campaign website on the eve of the runoff. Cagle went on to call Trump’s decision a “kick in the gut” but was nonetheless unwilling to blame him personally, instead pointing the finger at “Washington insiders who have weaseled their way into his ear.”
Kemp’s victory is the latest in a string of them for Trump-endorsed candidates in Republican primaries this year, and it marks somewhat of departure from the usual script whereby Trump sides with a GOP establishment type like Cagle over a challenger running as a Trumpian outsider like Kemp did in Georgia. The big question now, though, is whether going Full Trump will work for Kemp in a general election against Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, who is running as an unapologetic progressive. Abrams is betting she can fire up liberals and progressives, including the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who sat out the last election, and no one agitates that base like Donald Trump.