In the Trump era, it’s not easy for Republicans to distinguish themselves as the most hardcore anti-swamp, anti-status quo, anti-immigration candidate.
That’s not stopping the contenders in Georgia’s governor’s race, who have released a series of increasingly outlandish ads in the run-up to next week’s primary. Two that have generated headlines are variations on a theme: middle-aged white men in large vehicles pledging to personally round up undocumented immigrants.
The frontrunner in the race is Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a more moderate candidate who has backing from the state’s political and business establishment and a double-digit lead in polls. But Cagle is unlikely to meet the 50 percent threshold that would secure him the nomination, leaving his four opponents locked in an all-out war to score a spot in a June runoff election.
“Everybody is trying to do what they can to break from the pack,” state Sen. Josh McKoon, who is currently running for Secretary of State, told TPM.
With Cagle the clear favorite and all the candidates pushing an immigration-focused message, the ads are “an attempt to stand out and get some attention,” McKoon said.
According to a Survey USA poll released Tuesday, Cagle leads with 35 percent of the vote, Secretary of State Brian Kemp is in second with 17 percent, and former state lawmaker Hunter Hill and businessman Clay Tippins are tied for third place in the high single-digits. Around a quarter of likely GOP primary voters remain undecided.
In a Thursday interview with TPM, Kemp credited his recent ad buys with helping him close the polling gap. The initial ad showed Kemp pointing a shotgun at one of his teenage daughter’s potential suitors, pressing him to pledge his “respect” and “healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment.” In a second ad released days later, Kemp disembarks from the cab of a Ford F350 and tells the camera, “I’ve got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.”
Kemp told TPM he’d spent well over $1 million on those last two ad buys, and that he had been “very conservative” with his money until the end of the race so that he could flood the airwaves with this last-minute burst.
“It’s almost humorous that the left has taken all of that so serious and doesn’t get that we had fun doing that ad,” Kemp said of the backlash he’s received. “It was a playful way to draw attention to our issues and my values.”
Kemp was already on the national media’s radar from his tenure as secretary of state, during which he settled a federal lawsuit accusing him of disenfranchising thousands of minority voters.
Another candidate, State Sen. Michael Williams, is trailing in the polls but doing his best to catch up. This week, he rolled out an ad touting his “deportation bus,” which is currently crisscrossing the state, making stops in Georgia’s bluer cities. The vehicle’s rear door is painted with the words: “Danger! Murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molestors [sic], and other criminals on board. Follow me to Mexico.”
Williams has labeled himself the “most outspoken anti-illegal candidate” in the state’s history and wants to pass legislation that would deputize police officers in all Georgia counties as ICE agents.
Williams’ tour has had some difficulties getting off the ground. On Wednesday, protesters prevented his bus from departing for a scheduled stop in Decatur, and on Thursday the bus stalled on the side of a highway, apparently because water got into the engine.
YouTube initially pulled his ad promoting the tour, labeling it hate speech, before reversing course and allowing it to run on the site. (In a statement, a YouTube spokeswoman told TPM the company “made the wrong call” and that the video was “mistakenly removed.”)
Reached by phone on Thursday, Williams said that YouTube’s decision told him “that when you have someone out there who is fighting against those liberals who are trying to oppress us, you can win.”
He also suggested that “Antifa” could have been behind the bus malfunction, pointing to the “phone calls, texts, and online” threats they’ve received.
“We’ve gotten threats and we found water in our gas tank,” he said. “So you put the two together.”
The state senator is no stranger to controversy. After the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Williams raffled off a bump stock, the same device the shooter used to make his semi-automatic weapon fire more rapidly. Williams said the goal was to “take a stand against the leaders of the liberal progressive left.” He also attended Atlanta’s “March Against Sharia” last year along with members of the III % anti-government militia group.
McKoon, the secretary of state candidate, told TPM that some of these stunts play well among Republicans in the Peach State, where they help draw attention to what is still expected to be a low-turnout primary midterm election.
“For most folks outside of metropolitan Atlanta, the old idea of a guy coming to ask a girl out and the dad bringing out the guns to clean them, it’s not something that is foreign to a lot of Georgians,” he said of Kemp’s ad. “So I think there may have been some disconnect there between folks who are maybe outside of the Deep South.”
Other Georgia Republicans said the immigration ads, at least, are unhelpful and play on outdated stereotypes about the state.
“Unproductive all the way around,” Mark Rountree, head of an Atlanta-based GOP polling and consulting firm, told TPM of the immigration ads, noting that “molesters” was spelled incorrectly on Williams’ bus.
“I think sometimes national media simplifies Georgia into somewhat of a simplistic, one-dimensional Republican audience but we have very high-income, high-educated people voting in this election, and these ads are not speaking to them.”
Hill, the former state lawmaker, has consistently bested Williams in the polls without pushing such extreme rhetoric on immigration. In an email, he told TPM that voters don’t want politicians who just “talk a big game or pull gimmicks during an election cycle.”
And Georgia already has some pretty stringent immigration laws. The legislature banned sanctuary cities in 2009, and there are strict barriers preventing undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses or in-state education.
But with Trump this week referring to undocumented people as “animals,” Georgia’s Republicans are just doing their best to keep up.