ATLANTA – With a single tweet, President Donald Trump endorsed gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp and, just like that, shook up Georgia politics.
“Brian is tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration,” Trump said in a Wednesday afternoon tweet. “He loves our Military and our Vets and protects our Second Amendment.
“I give him my full and total endorsement,” he continued.
Trump’s endorsement comes in a Republican primary runoff where both candidates have earnestly pledged their support of the president, often quibbling over which one supports the president more. That made Trump’s involvement in the race particularly surprising.
His seal of approval will likely carry weight among conservatives in Georgia, where he remains popular among most Republicans, according to polling. He won the state by about 5 points in 2016.
Vice President Mike Pence piled on, endorsing Kemp Thursday and announcing he will be in Macon this weekend to campaign for the candidate.
The secretary of state’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, publicly took the news of Trump’s endorsement in stride.
“No hard feelings, @realDonaldTrump,” Cagle tweeted Wednesday. “I look forward to receiving your endorsement against the Democrats in November as I did for you (wish @BrianKempGA could say he did the same).”
Cagle offered stronger words Thursday in a follow-up tweet, saying he thinks “our President is getting some bad advice on Brian Kemp’s record of failure from Washington insiders.”
The endorsement came two days after Gov. Nathan Deal announced his support for Cagle. Deal said he believes Cagle is the best candidate to continue his administration’s initiatives and keep Georgia moving forward.
With 39 percent of the vote, Cagle was the top vote-getter in the May primary election. Kemp had about 26 percent of the vote. Both were criticized by the other candidates for not supporting Trump earlier than they did.
But since, Cagle’s campaign has been dogged by a secret cellphone recording that captured him appearing to admit in a private conversation that he supported “bad public policy” as a way to block a political rival from receiving a hefty campaign donation.
In another snippet, Cagle can be heard saying the primary election centered around “who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck and who could be the craziest.” Kemp has worked relentlessly to capitalize on the recording.
A recent poll showed Kemp winning with 44 percent of the vote, with Cagle about 3 points behind. It was within the poll’s margin of error. Election Day is Tuesday.
Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas, who is a Kemp supporter, wondered aloud Thursday whether the recording factored into Trump’s decision.
“I think ultimately what President Trump wants, and I know what Mike Pence wants, is for the governor of Georgia to be someone who will say clearly what he believes and do it,” the South Georgia lawmaker said. “That’s it.
“The president wants what the constituent wants. Be honest with me, be transparent and do what you say,” he said.
Other Kemp supporters said Thursday they believe the president’s endorsement will have an impact, whether by swaying undecided voters or motivating Kemp supporters to show up at the polls. Observers had been calling for single-digit voter turnout.
“I think it’s going to help push Kemp right over the top,” said Rep. Rick Williams, R-Milledgeville, a Kemp supporter. He called the former speaker Newt Gingrich’s decision to endorse Kemp Thursday the “cherry on top.”
But Cagle’s supporters say not to underestimate the importance of Deal’s endorsement in the race.
“Not to negate the value of a Trump endorsement, but an endorsement from a governor that has 85 percent approval from Republicans and 50 percent approval from Democrats is a huge deal,” said Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, who supports Cagle. “This endorsement will resonate through November.”
Former Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who supports Cagle, had a more biting response.
“I’m betting President Trump wouldn’t know his pick for Georgia Governor if he got in a cab with him or pick him out of a 2 person photo line up!” Westmoreland tweeted Thursday. “Makes you wonder where it came from.”
The winner Tuesday will face Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's newspapers and websites.