Don McKee

Don McKee

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has been just about shot out of the saddle as frontrunner by Secretary of State Brian Kemp in their runoff battle for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

That’s according to the most recent available poll showing a virtual dead heat with Cagle at 44 percent and Kemp at 43 percent – and only nine percent of respondents undecided. The difference is well within the 3.4 percent margin of error in the survey by the independent polling firm Cygnal, based in Montgomery.

Frontrunners in primary runoffs are always endangered as history proves, and Cagle has a huge challenge in trying to edge out Kemp on July 24. First, the Cygnal poll found the most-likely-to-vote respondents favored Kemp by 10 percentage points, meaning lower turnout would help Kemp while higher turnout would favor Cagle. The candidates were in a virtual tie in the Atlanta media market representing 64 percent of the state but Cagle held a 10-point lead in Macon, the second largest media market.

Here’s the core of the matter as Cygnal president Brent Buchanan explained: “Cagle has increased his vote share from the primary by five percent while Kemp has jumped 19 percent in the same timeframe. We in the political business call that ‘momentum.’”

Remember that following the May 22 primary Cagle had a big lead in the polls. His campaign’s internal poll showed him leading Kemp 52-42 among likely Republican voters with only five percent undecided. Likewise, a poll by McLaughlin & Associates for pro-Cagle Citizens for Georgia’s Future had Cagle ahead 44-38. Even at that point, however, Kemp said his campaign led 50-42 among NRA supporters despite the organization’s giving its endorsement to Cagle.

The candidates have tried to one-up each other over who is strongest on gun rights and support for the NRA. Support for President Trump is another point of contention. Cagle has cast himself as a virtual Trump clone. In a televised debate in Columbus, Cagle told viewers: “The choice is clear. If you want an individual who is just like President Trump and also like Gov. Deal and says what he means and gets things done, then I am your candidate.”

To counter that, Kemp portrays himself as being like Trump on style and issues. “I think people are ready for a politically incorrect person to say and talk about the issues we have before us — track and deport, stop and dismantle gangs, public safety reform,” Kemp said. Riding Trump’s coattails is a good strategy, considering that Trump’s approval ratings are close to 90 percent among likely Republican voters in the runoff.

It’s not clear how much damage has been done to Cagle by the Kemp campaign’s release of a secretly recorded conversation in which Cagle said he was backing a bill increasing state funds for private schools – even though he knew it was bad public policy – in order to prevent a foundation from donating $3 million to candidate Hunter Hill who finished third in the primary.

Cagle not only has to overcome the historical jinx of frontrunners losing in runoffs but he could have a problem carrying his home turf of Hall County. In the primary he drew only 49 percent of the vote there in the crowded field of seven Republicans, while Kemp ran second with almost 21 percent. A week after that shaky showing in Hall, Cagle opened a campaign field office in the county with new staff to shore up his local base. In this neck and neck race, Hall could be one of the decisive battlegrounds.

“Primary runoff elections are often a battle of inches, not miles,” Cygnal pollster Buchanan said in releasing the firm’s survey. “The 2018 Georgia Republican primary runoff for governor is setting up to be just that….The Republican nomination for governor of Georgia is 100 percent up for grabs and Kemp has the momentum.”

When the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination began, it was Casey Cagle’s to lose. He is in jeopardy of doing just that unless he can generate a high turnout of Republican voters to vote for him on July 24.

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