Georgia 2018: Republican candidates face an early test at GOP meet

Delegates gather at the Georgia GOP convention. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Augusta – The Georgia GOP convention Saturday doubled as an unofficial staging ground for the 2018 statewide race, a chance for the dozen or so Republicans in the contest to make their initial pitches to the grassroots activists who could help power their campaigns.

Some trumpeted their support for President Donald Trump. Others didn’t mention his name. But all used the event to shift the spotlight toward state issues – and a plea to leave the most pressing federal debates to politicians in Washington.

Here are some highlights so far:

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, in his third term in Georgia’s No. 2 job, talked glowingly of the “cultural change” brought about by Trump and said he would “never, ever run away from being a conservative.” He focused on his promise to add 500,000 jobs during his first term and slashing the state’s tax collections by $100 million – and seized on the speedy repair of the collapsed I-85 bridge.

“No one thought that bridge could be rebuilt in 45 days,” he said. “But that’s what happens when government gets out of the way and lets the private sector work.”

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, owner of an Athens construction firm, said he would fight the “liberal left” to make Georgia a top destination for small businesses. He said he would take a “chainsaw to job-killing regulations.”

“I will fight and implement a spending cap that adjusts with inflation and population,” said Kemp. “We cut waste, agree on priorities and pass a conservative budget that reflects our values. Georgia taxpayers will get what’s left.”

State Sen. Hunter Hill, a military combat veteran, called himself the “true constitutional conservative” in the race and talked of his experience as an infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and his Westminster pedigree. He railed against “sanctuary cities” and vowed to eliminate the state income tax.

“There’s more that we can be doing to move forward the conservative agenda than we can be doing,” said Hill, who represents parts of Atlanta and east Cobb. “But we can’t do it unless we elect a true conservative.”

State Sen. Michael Williams, a Cumming entrepreneur, said he was offered the Senate Appropriations Committee chair if he abandoned his gubernatorial bid. (Senate leaders denied those claims.) He blasted the “so-called leaders of our state” who he said have betrayed conservative interests and promised to expose “what really goes on at the state Capitol.”

“For generations, the same groups and individuals have controlled our political system.  They have conspired with big corporate to create crony capitalism that allows them to line their pockets – all on the backs of every day, hard-working Americans. The establishment – and the career politicians they finance – see our movement – and they know we’re coming for them.”

Lieutenant governor:

State Rep. Geoff Duncan, a Cumming health executive, centered his pitch on his outsider appeal. Amid a torrent of upheaval in Washington, he said, the time was ripe for a 42-year-old with a sweep of innovative ideas to run for office.

He also railed against the failure to pass a sweeping adoption measure, which failed to pass the state Senate in the final hours of this year’s legislative session. Duncan said it was a sign that “politics took precedence over good policy.”

State Sen. David Shafer, the chamber’s president pro tem, led his speech with outspoken support for Trump, casting him as a candidate under fire from a vindictive media that “hates the man.”

“He is challenging the people who would end freedom as we know it,” said the Duluth public relations executive. “That is why we must defend President Trump even as he stumbles.”