ATLANTA — In last week’s debate between Georgia’s Republican candidates for governor, policy was quickly abandoned as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp lit into one another with a familiar slate of accusations.
Kemp called Cagle a liar at least a dozen times. Cagle accused Kemp of conspiring with another Republican to release a recording of an “out of context” private conversation. Kemp accused Cagle of spreading “fake news” to Georgians, and Cagle repeatedly refused to apologize for saying what he says.
In a state where President Trump enjoys higher-than-average popularity, these two Republican candidates have not only bickered over which of them has supported the president for the longest or who would most warmly embrace the Trump agenda, they’ve also started acting like the president, using some of his nastiest campaign tactics.
In races across the country, other Republican candidates — and some Democrats — also are branding their opponents with unflattering nicknames, tweeting in all caps, refusing to apologize for things that politicians once apologized for, being proudly politically incorrect, circulating false information, calling their hometown newspapers “fake news,” releasing damaging information about their opponents and generating controversy to get headlines, even unflattering ones. A Republican candidate for California’s state legislature, copying Trump’s foray against President Barack Obama, has even launched a birther movement, demanding proof that his Democratic opponent is a legal citizen of the United States.
“Trump’s style was such a departure from anything we were used to seeing in a presidential campaign — his willingness to just go all-out and criticize heavily someone, call them names and engage in schoolyard talk,” said Kerwin Swint, a political-science professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “Candidates this year are more willing to go there out of a sense that a precedent has been set or that it works or why not do it in my race.”
But it’s unclear if the tactics will work for many candidates other than Trump, who had a cachet with his voters unmatched by most seeking office.
“I don’t like when candidates overly emulate the president. There’s only one Donald Trump,” said Harlan Z. Hill, a conservative consultant working on several midterm races who is also involved with Trump’s 2020 campaign. Hill said he gets frustrated with candidates who use gimmicky nicknames like the president does.
“My biggest problem with this is that it sort of reflects a wider problem in the Republican Party right now, where people are paying lip service to the Trump movement, the ‘America First’ movement,” he said. “They really don’t understand it, so they’re just emulating the superficial aspects of it. I think voters see right through that.”
But it can be difficult for voters to know whether candidates are emulating Trump out of belief or ambition.
Former soap-opera actor Antonio Sabato Jr. — who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention and is now running for Congress in Southern California — has called for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a Trump nemesis, to be locked up because he believes she is a “hustler of hate” who “wants to tar and feather anyone different from her.” In Indiana, Trump-endorsed Senate candidate Mike Braun cast his primary opponents as “Todd the Fraud” and “Luke the Liberal.” Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann has nicknamed a Democratic congressional candidate “Absent Abby,” in hopes of drawing attention to her statehouse attendance record. Meanwhile, the Maryland Democratic Party has nicknamed Republican Gov. Larry Hogan “Hidin’ Hogan” while accusing him of obscuring his conservative positions.
Some of the Trumpiest candidates — the sort who were early supporters of the president’s campaign and decided to run for office themselves — aren’t making it past the Republican primaries.
In northern Ohio’s 16th Congressional District, state lawmaker Christina Hagan was inspired by Trump’s 2016 victory to run for Congress, but she lost the primary to the Republican establishment’s favorite, former football star Anthony Gonzalez. One of Hagan’s commercials featured the same out-of-context footage of people rushing a Moroccan border that Trump used in one of his campaign commercials opposing illegal immigration. She also tweeted a news article about a suspect, with a name similar to her opponent’s, who had been charged in connection with what she called an “illegal immigrant drug ring” — ignoring calls from fellow Republicans who asked her to delete the tweet.
In New York’s 11th Congressional District, which includes Staten Island, former congressman Michael Grimm challenged Republican Rep. Dan Donovan but lost the primary. Grimm labeled his opponent “Desperate Dan” and “Dishonest Dan,” and compared his own felony conviction for federal tax fraud to the ongoing investigation into whether the Trump campaign worked with Russia in 2016, a probe Grimm considers unfair and politically motivated.
The Trumpiest candidate in the Georgia governor’s race was Michael Williams, a state senator who was one of the few elected officials in the country to endorse Trump in 2015. In the final days of the primary campaign, a struggling Williams received a burst of local and national attention for driving a “deportation bus” around the state, sparking a string of protests. It was a stunt that surprised some of Williams’s supporters, who compared it with Trump purposely generating controversy so that he could dominate the news.
Williams finished last in the primary, even losing the county where he lives. Cagle earned the most votes but not enough to become the party’s nominee, so he and Kemp face a runoff on July 24. A poll released by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News last week shows Kemp with a slight lead. Trump himself weighed in on Wednesday, giving Kemp his “full and total endorsement.”
Voter turnout for primaries is often low — and it’s often even lower for runoff elections, especially those held in the dead of summer. Local strategists and political scientists say that voters who do show up will likely be the party’s most loyal and most conservative members. That explains why Kemp has released so many ads featuring his guns and pickup truck, which he claims in a southern drawl could be used to “round up criminal illegals.” And it explains why Cagle is now catering to the far-right edge of the party.
“It’s literally been hilarious to watch” said Seth Weathers, a former state director for Trump who worked on Williams’s campaign, describing what he said was Cagle’s transformation from moderate to Trump mimic.
“Just be who you are,” he said, adding: “No one is Trump.”
Soon after the May primary, Cagle met with one of the Republicans he beat, Clay Tippins, for a frank conversation that he hoped would lead to an endorsement. Tippins recorded the conversation and has been releasing parts of it. First came audio of Cagle saying that a bill providing public funding for private schools was “bad public policy” but he supported it to prevent a rival from gaining financial support from charter school supporters.
Last week, Kemp’s campaign released a snippet it had received from Tippins in which Cagle says that the GOP primary came down to “who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck and who could be the craziest.”
Kemp said that Cagle was trashing conservative voters with the comment, comparing it with Hillary Clinton describing Trump’s supporters as “deplorables.” Cagle’s aides said he was pointing out how crazy Kemp has made this race.
Cagle recorded a new commercial last week that was staged to look like a Trump rally. He stood in front of an American flag, surrounded by supporters, and yelled out his beliefs to a cheering crowd.
“I’ll never apologize for outlawing sanctuary cities or stopping liberals from taking the values that make our country great,” he said, delivering lines familiar to any Trump rally veteran. “The time for conservatives getting kicked around is over.”
Cagle tweeted out the ad with a claim that his opponent was “in cahoots” with the media to push “fake news.”
In the debate last week, many of the buzzwords reflected 2016: “Colluding.” “Lies.” “Never going to apologize.” “Hypocrite.” “Despicable.” “Fake news.” After the debate, it continued as the candidates answered questions from reporters.
“Casey Cagle’s getting to be like Hillary Clinton now,” Kemp said. “He’s gone after my ‘crazy’ supporters that have guns, trucks and chain saws. He’s saying I’m colluding, and he’s saying I’m sexist. That’s the same thing that Hillary Clinton said about Donald Trump.”
Minutes later, Cagle complained with a line that could have come straight from Trump. No one could hear about his record as Georgia’s lieutenant governor, he said, because “the only thing that my opponent can talk about is a tape — a tape!”