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Georgia GOP race for governor was Trump-like even before he stepped in

ATLANTA -- The bruising Republican runoff between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp that comes to an end Tuesday has brought all the hallmarks of a Trump-era contest to a Georgia race for governor.

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Greg Bluestein
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- The bruising Republican runoff between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp that comes to an end Tuesday has brought all the hallmarks of a Trump-era contest to a Georgia race for governor.

There have been covert recordings, vicious nicknames, allegations of sexism and bloody-knuckle debates. And now, with Donald Trump's "full and complete" support for Kemp, the president has inserted himself smack in the middle of the election.

The late endorsement added sharp edges to a story line that has reshaped Georgia politics. Cagle has been preparing for a run for governor for more than a decade and entered the race as a juggernaut. He was so confident of victory he swiped at other GOP rivals in the crowded primary because he viewed Kemp as more beatable in a head-to-head matchup.

Now he's the underdog to Kemp, who has honed a Trump-like persona with a "Georgia first," politically incorrect appeal, rowdy shotgun-wielding advertisements, and a relentless tack to his party's conservative flank. That image helped attract the president's endorsement, which even Cagle backers concede could be a game changer in an otherwise tight race.

In the final stretch, both men are scrambling to rev up voters with pre-election rallies across the state. Each is gunning for a sliver of a Republican electorate in a low-turnout race that could hinge on a few thousand votes.

On most policy matters, there's little difference between the two. They've staked strikingly similar positions on cutting taxes and expanding gun rights, on fighting illegal immigration and restricting abortion. Both have also threatened to upset Gov. Nathan Deal's carefully cultivated relationship with Fortune 500 giants and Atlanta's City Hall.

All that has been overshadowed, though, by bickering and twists that could have come out of a spy movie: the secretly made recording of Cagle admitting that he supported what he described as "bad public policy" for political reasons, the repeated calls for federal prosecutors to investigate the other guy, the surprise last-minute endorsement from Trump.

Who can beat Democrat Stacey Abrams, who handily wrapped up her party's nomination in May, had become almost an afterthought until a few day ago. In last week's final televised debate, Cagle and Kemp virtually ignored her.

Instead, the contest has pivoted on the sharp-elbowed tactics that might make Trump feel at home.

'The Trump mentality'

The two men have attacked each other relentlessly.

Cagle's candid hope to cut poverty rates in half, captured in the secret recording, drew accusations from Kemp's allies that he wanted to resuscitate Lyndon B. Johnson's multibillion-dollar war on poverty.

After 16-year-old campaign material from Kemp's run for the state Senate emerged supporting "universal access" to health care for lower-income residents, Cagle ridiculed his opponent and the policy, saying it would make Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act look meager in comparison.

Taking more cues from Trump, the two have pet names for each other. Kemp dubs his opponent "Pinocchio" for the fusillade of falsehoods he said are aimed his way. Cagle shakes his head, gravely, when unloading his nickname for his adversary: "Lyin' Brian."

Though Georgia voters need not look far for examples of vicious infighting -- the 2006 Democratic runoff and 2010 GOP contest come to mind -- the spitefulness has some worried this race will set a new low.

"In the modern era, with the Trump mentality, if you get hit, you hit back," said Heath Garrett, a veteran Republican strategist and top adviser to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. "It's an importation of New York-style politics in the last bit of a silly season in this campaign."

For voters, all the vitriol can be the ultimate runoff turnoff.

"I'm worried about the nastiness in this race. The world's not going to end if the other guy wins," said Don Lowery, a 53-year-old database administrator in Marietta. "The bitterness on both sides -- it's really a shame to me. I've never seen so much hate."

'Merry Christmas'

For a while, it seemed the defining moment in the Republican contest might be Cagle's vow to "kill" a proposed tax break for Delta Air Lines after it ended a discount for National Rifle Association members.

The demise of those incentives earned Cagle applause from conservatives and the gun group's endorsement -- along with outrage from some business leaders who promptly sided with Democratic candidates.

These days, that controversy has been pushed aside by a torrent of other developments. The most dominant is the secret recording of Cagle made by Clay Tippins, a former rival who captured the audio on an iPhone tucked into his jacket pocket and released snippets to damage the lieutenant governor.

On the recording Cagle acknowledged that he backed a private school tax credit though it was bad "a thousand different ways." The revelation upended the race and led to calls from Kemp allies for a federal probe.

It was followed by another clip of Cagle casting the Republican race as a contest over "who could be the craziest," which to some recalled Hillary Clinton's description of Trump's supporters in 2016 as a "basket of deplorables."

"We'll take 'em. We'll take the Kemp crazies," Kemp chuckled after one west Georgia rally. "You call 'em whatever you want, but they're going to turn out to vote."

Trailing in the polls, Cagle has swung for the fences. He's seized on reports about Kemp's troubled investments in a Kentucky seed-crushing plant and questionable campaign contributions to accuse him of depriving farmers of their livelihood and tacitly condoning sexual assault.

Cagle's final TV ad, a closing message typically featuring sunnier overtones, captured the dark turn in the race: "After 20 years of failures, what's Brian have to say?" the narrator asks, before cutting to a shadowy image of Kemp responding with four words: "I say Merry Christmas."

'No question'

The two have sliced and diced fractious Georgia Republicans every which way.

When Cagle landed the NRA's endorsement, Kemp answered with support from Then Cagle nabbed backing from the author of Georgia's medical marijuana law -- and Kemp got the mother who inspired the legislation. And after Cagle earned Deal's help, Kemp rolled out press conferences with the two runners-up in the primary.

But both candidates were caught off-guard by Trump's surprise decision to wade into the race, a move that was soon followed by Vice President Mike Pence's rally Saturday with Kemp. In a Republican race where loyalty to Trump is key, the president's support could be the break Kemp needed to cross the finish line.

The impact won't be known until Tuesday night. Cagle still has a financial advantage and a get-out-the-vote network that's vaster than Kemp's skinnier operation. And though his advisers concede his chances are dimmer, they point to robust early voting numbers that could favor the lieutenant governor.

Whoever wins has plenty of work in repairing a fractured party. In the final days, Cagle has reached what some Republicans fear as a point of no return by saying, definitively, that Kemp will lose to Abrams in November.

"There's no question in my mind. There's not a poll out there that shows he can win. It's indicative of the kind of campaign he's run, and it's indicative of his record," Cagle said. "There's no question."

If that's not toxic enough, look to the venom between surrogates.

After state Sen. Renee Unterman called on prosecutors to probe Kemp's political contributions, the secretary of state's campaign called her "mentally unstable" and urged her to seek "immediate medical attention before she hurts herself or someone else."

Then came accusations of sexism, finger-pointing from both campaigns and, finally, a deeply personal account from Unterman on social media about her struggles with depression, her family's turmoil and her son's suicide.

"This race is getting so nasty and personal," Unterman said. "I know what campaigns are like, but we've crossed a threshold."

The calls by Republican leaders for both campaigns to ratchet down the rhetoric are growing louder, and the Georgia GOP rushed to schedule a unity rally after the election to focus the attention on Abrams. The other day, state Rep. Sam Teasley lamented that it's "getting painful to watch."

Shani Clark, a nursing home staffer who backs Cagle, couldn't agree more. She's followed the race for months but is exhausted by a playbook that seems ripped from the 2016 presidential campaign.

"It's actually shocking that it's gotten this far," Clark said with a sigh. "Trump got so far doing those things and people want to copy him. But I'd rather they look at the policies rather than putting on a show."

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