In his come-from-behind victory in the GOP gubernatorial runoff, Brian Kemp scored the biggest swing in Georgia runoff history. After finishing second in the May primary with 25.6% of the vote, Kemp streaked to a runoff landslide of 69.5%, a swing of 43.9 percentage points. A review of 200 runoffs in which the runner up overtook the front runner reveals that the previous record holder had been Thomas Marshall who beat Jack Dorsey in 1974 for a seat on the Court of Appeals by registering a swing of 43.3 points.
The swing in a gubernatorial runoff closest to Kemp’s record occurred when George Busbee gained 39 percentage points to deny Lester Maddox a second term. Eight years ago Nathan Deal increased his vote share 27.3 points to nudge past Karen Handel. When Joe Frank Harris overtook Bo Ginn in 1982, a 31 point swing occurred.
As I noted in a recent article, outcomes in gubernatorial runoffs are unlike runoffs for any other office. Primary leaders go on to win runoffs when there is no incumbent in the contest 75% of the time. But in open seat runoffs for governor, the primary leader does not have the inside track. In losing the runoff, Casey Cagle joins Karen Handel, Bo Ginn, Lester Maddox and Ellis Arnall all of whom saw their primary leads evaporate. Only Jimmy Carter, Zell Miller and Roy Barnes prevailed in both rounds of a nomination that extended to a runoff.
Every election has its unique elements. Three major events contributed to Kemp’s upset of Cagle, the longtime favorite to win the nomination. The first item was the initial Kemp ad with Jake, the young man eager to date one of Kemp’s daughters. Kemp’s cradling of a shotgun proved controversial and that controversy attracted much more attention for underdog Kemp than a more conventional pitch. The ad itself became a news story and while it turned off some viewers it proved a net gain and distinguished Kemp among those clawing for a runoff slot against Cagle.
Even as he made it into the runoff, Kemp managed only about two-thirds as many votes as Cagle. The second decisive factor came in the form of a confession made by Cagle and secretly recorded by Clay Tippins. In meeting with Tippins, Cagle engaged in the time-honored practice where a runoff candidate seeks the endorsement of competitors eliminated in the primary. In a candid discussion with Tippins, Cagle acknowledged that he had facilitated enactment of a bill which he considered seriously flawed in order to disadvantage one of the other primary candidates for governor. Since he was caught on tape, Cagle struggled to come up with an acceptable explanation for what seemed to be questionable ethical behavior.
The contents of the secret tape evened the support for Kemp and Cagle as they neared the finish line. One tracking poll showed Cagle edge ahead when, a week before the vote, he got Governor Nathan Deal’s endorsement while other polls had Kemp leading by a few points. But President Trump administered the coup de grace to the lieutenant governor’s hopes when he tweeted his support for Kemp. One tracking poll shows the lieutenant governor imploding while Kemp’s support rocketed upward after the President weighed in. Even polling that showed Kemp ahead prior to the President’s embrace suggests that the tweet coupled with the visit by Vice President Mike Pence to Kemp’s Macon rally boosted support by 18 points.
That the President’s endorsement proved so valuable is hardly surprising. A poll done by UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that choosing the candidate who was the strongest Trump supporter was the most important consideration for a fifth of the sample. More respondents cited electing Trump’s man as their goal than pointed to considerations of candidate trustworthiness or selecting the candidate who would be best at promoting Georgia’s economy.
The Trump endorsement may have also impacted turnout. Turnout in runoffs is usually less than in the preceding primary and sometimes the decrease in interest is dramatic as it was this year on the Democratic side. Among Republicans, there was a drop, but not much. Turnout in the GOP runoff came within 3.6 % of the primary vote. In contrast, eight years ago when Nathan Deal beat Karen Handel in the runoff, the second round had almost 15% fewer voters than the primary.
Kemp enters the final round of the extended selection process for Georgia’s next governor as the favorite. Democrat Stacey Abrams needs to find an additional 200,000 voters if she is to close the gap by which leading Democrats lost in 2014 and 2016. President Trump’s backing provided an unalloyed benefit in the GOP runoff. It is unlikely to carry the same weight in November. Stacey Abrams and the Democratic Party may use opposition to Trump to galvanize support much as Republicans use Nancy Pelosi to rally their troops. President Trump won Georgia by 5.2 percentage points. Four years earlier, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama in Georgia by 8 points, a 100,000 larger victory than Trump managed.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and co-author of Georgia Politics in a State of Change. A new edition of that volume is scheduled for publication early in 2019. He appreciates the support provided by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that funded the collection of some of the data analyzed here.