ATLANTA — After being criticized by opponents for not endorsing the early candidacy of President Donald Trump, the two Republicans vying to become Georgia governor are now battling over who is the true Trump supporter.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle beat out three other opponents in the May 22 primary after a five-man race in which they were slammed by opponents for being late to the Trump train.
Cagle initially backed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential primary, while Kemp refrained from making an endorsement until after the Georgia primary. Both backed Trump in the general election against Hillary Clinton.
Trump so far has refrained from endorsing either Republican in the Georgia gubernatorial battle. That's a stark contrast from neighboring South Carolina, where Gov. Henry McMaster won a contested GOP primary last month after Trump traveled to the state to support him. Unlike Cagle or Kemp, McMaster had endorsed Trump's candidacy early in 2016.
Cagle and Kemp now frequently invoke the president's name in their bid to rally conservative voters during a contentious runoff that will be decided July 24. The winner will face Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is seeking to become the first black woman to become governor of any U.S. state.
Cagle, in social media posts and in stump speeches around the state, regularly touts the recent federal tax cuts backed by the president and praises his focus on American workers.
A recent television ad from Cagle's campaign opens on a picture of Trump with the words "Trump gets things done," scrawled across the bottom of the screen. The ad then fades to a shot of Cagle, with the words "Conservative Casey Cagle - Just like President Trump," written below.
Kemp, meanwhile, has run a campaign with obvious similarities to Trump's, positioning himself as a "politically incorrect" outsider with a business background who wants to cut through the bureaucracy of government.
Kemp has made combatting illegal immigration the mainstay issue of his candidacy, mimicking the president's tone in frequent speeches warning about threats posed by "criminal illegal aliens" and gangs like MS-13. He often invokes_and tweets at_President Trump in messages about everything from immigration to support for anti-abortion causes.
A January poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed Trump with an 81 percent approval rating among Georgia Republicans, and he remains popular with conservatives in the state. His campaign pitches for stronger border protection, support for small business and the revitalization of blue-collar jobs have proved to be winning messages here — and are ones that other Republicans down the ticket are now trying to emulate.
Both GOP gubernatorial campaigns in Georgia say they've reached out to the White House. Kemp spokesman Ryan Mahoney said the campaign has "made requests directly" for Trump's endorsement. Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley said his team has been communicating with the administration but "has not requested a formal endorsement from President Trump."
The runoff between Cagle and Kemp has become downright nasty, with the candidates slinging accusations of ethical lapses and incompetence. They have also gone after one another over their support for the president, trading barbs and accusing each other of only supporting Trump for political gain.
"Brian Kemp never even publicly supported Donald Trump. ... He bemoaned Trump as 'the candidate that we got,'" Cagle's campaign said in a promotional email.
Kemp accused Cagle on twitter recently of hobnobbing with some of former President Barack Obama's biggest supporters and President Trump's biggest critics. "That's not loyalty to (the president) — that's opportunism," he tweeted.
In statements to The Associated Press, both campaigns pushed back on criticism that they were late in their support for Trump and positioned themselves as the most strident Trump backers.
Cagle spokesman Joseph Hendricks said that Cagle was an outspoken supporter of Trump who "backed him before he was nominated, stumped for him at the GOP National Convention, and worked to raise money for his campaign."
Mahoney said Kemp "remained neutral" to ensure the success of the Super Tuesday primary in 2016. Mahoney said Kemp later endorsed Donald Trump.