Looking Ahead: 2018 Will Be Historic Election Year for Georgia

July 19, 2017

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Elections always reshape politics, but 2018 will reshape Georgia’spolitical landscape the way clear-cutting changes a pine forest. WhenGeorgians wake up after Election Day next November, new faces will occupythe majority of state government positions. And the election itself willtake place in one of the most volatile and unpredictable environments ofthe past several decades.

The biggest driver for all this change is that Georgia, like its neighborsin Florida and Tennessee, will have an open governor’s seat due to termlimits. This opportunity has attracted a broad field of candidates, andresulted in several other key offices becoming open as their officeholdersvacate them to run for governor.

The following is a look at the current field:


Casey Cagle ($2.7 million raised): The current lieutenant governor and Senate president is presently thefrontrunner to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal. An affable and pragmatic leaderwith a background in banking and real estate, Cagle recently shatteredfundraising records and remains in the lead on endorsements andorganization. He is well-positioned to pivot to a general election messagearound his core priorities of jobs and education.

Hunter Hill ($1 million raised): This state senator served combat tours as an Army ranger and now runs amotivational speaking and coaching company. Hill is an optimisticconservative running on a platform built around school choice and taxreform. He put up respectable fundraising numbers for a first-timestatewide candidate, due largely to the high incomes in his Senatedistrict, which centers on the Buckhead area of Atlanta.

Brian Kemp ($1.7 million raised): The current secretary of state has a background in real estate and formerlyserved in the state Senate. Kemp surprised some observers with his strongfundraising numbers in the first reporting period. His campaign strategyfocuses on rural Georgia, with a great emphasis on issues of perceivedconcern to that voting bloc. A veteran of several statewide campaigns, Kemphas pockets of support around the state.

Michael Williams ($50,000 raised, $1 million personal loan):This first-term state Senator is most aggressively moving to capture theTrump mantle of anti-establishment conservatism. Williams’ campaign focusesheavily on creating controversy and leveraging it into press coverage.


Stacey Abrams ($500,000 raised): The current House minority leader begins the Democratic primary in a strongposition. An Ivy-League-educated lawyer, Abrams is widely recognized forher detailed knowledge of policy issues, particularly those involving taxand fiscal matters. So far, she has emphasized issues that play to theparty’s base, but she is well-positioned to pivot to fiscal issuesimpacting a larger swath of voters in the general.

Stacey Evans ($400,000 raised): A member of the House Democratic leadership and a successful civillitigation attorney, Evans has a politically appealing record of policywork around higher education affordability. She entered the race afterAbrams and scored some points by moving quickly to near parity infundraising.

In terms of polling, Cagle is the only candidate in the current field withsignificant statewide name identification from television advertisements inpast campaigns. Hence, there won’t be any meaningful polling availableuntil the campaign gets underway and voters have a chance to assess thecandidates through advertisements, debates and media coverage. Expect thefield for both primaries to remain fluid until late winter or early springof next year heading into the May 2018 primary. Because Georgia requires a50 percent margin to avoid a runoff in a primary, it’s likely that theRepublican field will not be settled until later in the summer after therunoff.

Generically, Georgia is a far more competitive state than recent-yearelection results have shown. The Pew Center breaks down partisanship in thestate as 41 Republican, 41 Democrat and 18 Independent in its survey data,and Gallup lists Georgia — along with Florida, Virginia and North Carolina— as the toss-up states in the Deep South. Voter turnout dynamics andhistorically stronger Republican campaigns and candidates have given thestate a bigger red label than it truly merits based on the underlying votertrends. Operatives in both parties are, of course, aware of this and willsee the number of open seats in Georgia as an opportunity to compete. Thismeans, for the first time in recent history, the November general electionmay be as important as the primary in terms of selecting statewideofficeholders.

The spillover impact of the movement at the top of the ticket to otherstate offices is substantial. Newly open offices resulting from musicalchairs and retirements include lieutenant governor, Senate president protempore, House minority leader, insurance commissioner and secretary ofstate. Additionally, a raft of senior House and Senate members will beleaving to run for other offices. This means new faces will occupy many keyleadership and committee positions in 2019.

Among all of the changes, the Georgia House leadership structure appears tobe the most stable area. Speaker David Ralston continues to lead thechamber with a steady hand, and most of his key committee chairman andleadership team members are likely to return in 2019. In the 2018 session,expect the House to be something of a buffer for the turmoil that willresult from a large number of elected officials in the capitol positioningfor higher office next year. In terms of areas of stability other than theHouse, expect the attorney general’s seat to remain occupied by Chris Carr,who was appointed to fill the remainder of Sam Olens’ term. Carr has a deeppolitical background, excellent business community relationships and strongpolicy knowledge, and he is highly likely to win re-election.

From a business standpoint, the overriding goal in Georgia for the nextyear should be to remain nimble and anticipate the unexpected. It will alsobe important to pay close attention to the next generation of legislativeleadership, specifically talented legislators who understand policy andpolitics and will rapidly move into influential positions over the next 18months.