By Maggie Lee
As the day of the primary election gets closer, Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial hopefuls are looking to grab the attention of people headed to the ballot boxes. The candidates are talking a lot about illegal immigration.
There was was Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s promise to answer a call from President Donald Trump to send Georgia National Guard troops to the border with Mexico to help stop illegal border crossings. And Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s ad in which he promises to use his own Ford F-350 pickup to deport people. However, driving a yet larger vehicle is state Sen. Michael Williams, whose trailing campaign is touring a “deportation bus” around the state, advertising a promise to deliver lawbreakers to Mexico.
That’s part of what set the stage for spending a lot of time on tough immigration and law enforcement pledges from the five candidates on stage at a high-profile GOP gubernatorial debate in Atlanta on Thursday evening.
Each of the five is trying to woo enough conservative voters by Tuesday to send him into the November general election against a Democrat. While Georgia’s been a dependably red state for more than a decade, some Republicans have been spooked by a blue wave that appeared in Cobb and Gwinnett in 2016. There’s an electoral argument for tacking to the right, but there’s another argument for being able to appeal to voters who linger around the middle ground. It’s possible that being able to do both is what’ll give someone the key to a fine home on West Paces Ferry Road.
Four of the five men have spent time in the state Senate or higher office: Cagle as lieutenant governor and former state senator, Hunter Hill as a former state senator (and former Army Ranger,) Kemp as secretary of state and a former state senator and Williams as a state senator. Clay Tippins, a former Navy SEAL, is making his first run for office.
Asked why he’s focusing his closing pitch to voters on deportation — a federal, not a state task — Kemp said the answer is public safety.
“As a father of three teenaged daughters, I’m concerned for their safety, I’m concerned for other Georgians’ safety. As I’ve travelled to all 159 counties, talking to state law enforcement officials, local prosecutors, Georgia unfortunately has become a hub to the Mexican drug cartel … making the sex trafficking worse, creating havoc in the opioid epidemic,” he said.
Williams, the one with the bus, said endorsed a federal program that does delegate some of that federal power to counties and cities.
“We can implement the 287(g) deportation program, where we can take it upon the state to actually be involved in deporting those illegals. We need someone who’s going to stand up, who’s not going to back down from the liberals trying to take over our state,” he said.
Just days before the debate, members of a little-known state body, the Immigration Enforcement Review Board, heard a 2017 complaint by Cagle against the city of Decatur. Cagle accuses it of being a “sanctuary” city, one that’s not cooperative with federal immigration authorities. Decatur argues its police policies don’t prohibit cooperation with the feds, and its police chief said he couldn’t recall ever receiving a U.S. request to hold anyone for deportation. When Cagle was lieutenant governor, the Legislature tightened immigration enforcement laws several times, notably under a 2011 law that gave police more power to look into criminal suspects’ immigration status, and that required some employers to check their employees’ status.
“I think my record is very clear,” said Cagle. “There’s a right way and wrong way to come to the country. And I have been the leader in making sure that we’re doing things to protect our citizens and holding people accountable.”
Hill said illegal immigration is undermining the fabric of the country and it’s caused by policies put into place by career politicians.
“Free health care for illegals. We’re paying our own citizens to do nothing, which creates a demand in the lower-level aspects of the economy, which drive people to come here for opportunity. The reality is that we have to address long-term entitlement spending,” said Hill.
Tippins said that everyone on the stage would stand firm against illegal immigration, but he said what made him different is that he’d deal with the “downstream consequences” of it.
“One of the bad things that’s happened because of illegal immigration is the MS-13 gangs. They bring so much of the heroin into Georgia. The heroin fuels the sex trafficking trade,” said Tippins, saying his strategy to deal with it comes from lessons learned fighting ISIS in Iraq. “Use the internet, figure out where sex trafficking is happening; there’s an overlap … Crush the leadership of the networks, take it all out, that’s a real solution.”
If polling and fundraising are any guide, two things are fairly clear: Cagle is the frontrunner, and Williams lags the others. And indeed, the other candidates on the stage sniped at Cagle given the chance, accusing him of being a career politician.
Cagle had raised nearly $7 million by the end of the first quarter; Kemp was in the second place with less than half that. Both men benefit from the name recognition that comes from having run already run statewide races.
Polls for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WXIA also put Cagle in first and Kemp second. However, many voters polled remained undecided, and with candidates polling near each other, the margins of error for each can make a big difference in the ranking.
The primary election is on May 22 and early voting is underway.
The debate was organized by the Atlanta Press Club, and a full video is online.