President Trump threw his political clout behind a hard-line candidate in the contested primary for governor of Georgia on Wednesday, backing Brian Kemp, a state official who has run television ads showing him wielding a shotgun and vowing to “round up” illegal immigrants.
Mr. Trump’s support could well decide a close nomination fight between Mr. Kemp and Casey Cagle, Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor. The two men are competing in a July 24 runoff election after neither managed to win a majority in the first round of voting in May.
The eventual Republican nominee will compete in the general election in November against Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives who is vying to become the first black woman to serve as governor of a state.
A contest between Mr. Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, and Ms. Abrams would likely be one of the most hotly contested in the country, and it could represent an important cultural test for a traditionally conservative state that has grown more diverse and cosmopolitan in recent years. Mr. Trump won Georgia in 2016 by a clear, but not overwhelming, margin, and Democrats believe it could be a swing state in 2020.
In this year’s Republican primary, however, Mr. Trump’s endorsement is perhaps the most valuable seal of approval a candidate could obtain — and he offered it emphatically to Mr. Kemp.
“Brian is tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. “He loves our Military and our Vets and protects our Second Amendment. I give him my full and total endorsement.”
Mr. Kemp, 55, was the runner-up in the first round of primary voting, taking about a quarter of the vote and finishing 13 percentage points behind Mr. Cagle.
But Mr. Cagle has struggled in the intervening weeks: He has faced scrutiny over a personal real estate deal, and he has been forced to respond to a series of audio recordings, made in secret by a political adversary, that revealed Mr. Cagle bragging about pushing “bad public policy” to damage a political opponent and characterizing the Republican primary in unflattering terms.
The nomination fight, Mr. Cagle said in the recordings, had become a test of “who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck and who would be the craziest.”
The comment appeared to be alluding, at least in part, to Mr. Kemp’s ads.
Still, Mr. Cagle has maintained the support of much of Georgia’s Republican establishment and was endorsed this week by Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican who is broadly popular.
Mr. Cagle responded on Twitter to the president’s endorsement, writing lightheartedly that there were “no hard feelings” and gesturing toward the general election.
“I look forward to receiving your endorsement against the Democrats in November as I did for you,” Mr. Cagle said, adding, in a reference to his rival’s ambivalence about Mr. Trump in 2016, that he wished Mr. Kemp “could say the same.”
There was nothing halfhearted in Mr. Kemp’s celebratory mood on Wednesday: He welcomed Mr. Trump’s endorsement, linking himself with the president in his attitude and policies.
“As governor, I will unapologetically stand with President Trump to secure our border, deport criminal aliens, crush gangs and ensure a bright and promising future for our families,” Mr. Kemp said, calling himself a “politically incorrect conservative,” a label he has used throughout the race.
The president has been on something of a winning streak in Republican primaries, asserting himself forcefully as the leader of his party even as he has battled a string of damaging controversies, including his repeated remarks this week questioning the American intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mr. Trump’s endorsement helped Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, an embattled Republican, overcome a difficult primary, and he backed Katie Arrington, the conservative South Carolina legislator who ousted Representative Mark Sanford in a primary, in the last hours of the race. On Tuesday, Representative Martha Roby of Alabama, a mainstream Republican who rejected Mr. Trump in the 2016 campaign, survived a primary challenge after Mr. Trump set aside past grievances and endorsed her.
But Mr. Trump has also assembled a mixed record in assisting fellow Republicans. He has suffered some embarrassing defeats, as in last year’s Alabama Senate race, when he campaigned hard for Senator Luther Strange only to see him crumble in a contested primary.
And in Georgia, Mr. Trump’s involvement could prove a double-edged sword in the governor’s race, stirring Democratic-leaning voters in the general election as assuredly as he persuades conservatives in the Republican primary.
Ms. Abrams, 44, has staked her candidacy on mobilizing a coalition of young voters, racial minorities and moderate women, and arguing that a divided state government led by a mainstream Democrat would be better for Georgia than a one-party administration led from the right.
To the extent that the race hinges on moderate swing voters, Mr. Kemp’s divisive persona and ideological orientation may make him a more useful foil than Mr. Cagle, a flawed but decidedly conventional Republican politician. In addition to his incendiary rhetoric, Mr. Kemp has backed so-called “religious freedom” legislation that has drawn strong opposition in the past from the business community and gay-rights groups.
But any Republican would likely begin the general election as something of a favorite in Georgia, where no Democrat has won the governorship or a Senate seat since 2000.
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