Jul 19, 2017

Looking Ahead: 2018 Will Be Historic Election Year for Georgia

Elections always reshape politics, but 2018 will reshape Georgia’s political landscape the way clear-cutting changes a pine forest. When Georgians wake up after Election Day next November, new faces will occupy the majority of state government positions. And the election itself will take place in one of the most volatile and unpredictable environments of the past several decades.

The biggest driver for all this change is that Georgia, like its neighbors in Florida and Tennessee, will have an open governor’s seat due to term limits. This opportunity has attracted a broad field of candidates, and resulted in several other key offices becoming open as their officeholders vacate them to run for governor.

The following is a look at the current field:


Casey Cagle ($2.7 million raised): The current lieutenant governor and Senate president is presently the frontrunner to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal. An affable and pragmatic leader with a background in banking and real estate, Cagle recently shattered fundraising records and remains in the lead on endorsements and organization. He is well-positioned to pivot to a general election message around his core priorities of jobs and education.

Hunter Hill ($1 million raised): This state senator served combat tours as an Army ranger and now runs a motivational speaking and coaching company. Hill is an optimistic conservative running on a platform built around school choice and tax reform. He put up respectable fundraising numbers for a first-time statewide candidate, due largely to the high incomes in his Senate district, which centers on the Buckhead area of Atlanta.

Brian Kemp ($1.7 million raised): The current secretary of state has a background in real estate and formerly served in the state Senate. Kemp surprised some observers with his strong fundraising numbers in the first reporting period. His campaign strategy focuses on rural Georgia, with a great emphasis on issues of perceived concern to that voting bloc. A veteran of several statewide campaigns, Kemp has pockets of support around the state.

Michael Williams ($50,000 raised, $1 million personal loan): This first-term state Senator is most aggressively moving to capture the Trump mantle of anti-establishment conservatism. Williams’ campaign focuses heavily on creating controversy and leveraging it into press coverage.


Stacey Abrams ($500,000 raised): The current House minority leader begins the Democratic primary in a strong position. An Ivy-League-educated lawyer, Abrams is widely recognized for her detailed knowledge of policy issues, particularly those involving tax and fiscal matters. So far, she has emphasized issues that play to the party’s base, but she is well-positioned to pivot to fiscal issues impacting a larger swath of voters in the general.

Stacey Evans ($400,000 raised): A member of the House Democratic leadership and a successful civil litigation attorney, Evans has a politically appealing record of policy work around higher education affordability. She entered the race after Abrams and scored some points by moving quickly to near parity in fundraising.

In terms of polling, Cagle is the only candidate in the current field with significant statewide name identification from television advertisements in past campaigns. Hence, there won’t be any meaningful polling available until the campaign gets underway and voters have a chance to assess the candidates through advertisements, debates and media coverage. Expect the field for both primaries to remain fluid until late winter or early spring of next year heading into the May 2018 primary. Because Georgia requires a 50 percent margin to avoid a runoff in a primary, it’s likely that the Republican field will not be settled until later in the summer after the runoff.

Generically, Georgia is a far more competitive state than recent-year election results have shown. The Pew Center breaks down partisanship in the state as 41 Republican, 41 Democrat and 18 Independent in its survey data, and Gallup lists Georgia — along with Florida, Virginia and North Carolina — as the toss-up states in the Deep South. Voter turnout dynamics and historically stronger Republican campaigns and candidates have given the state a bigger red label than it truly merits based on the underlying voter trends. Operatives in both parties are, of course, aware of this and will see the number of open seats in Georgia as an opportunity to compete. This means, for the first time in recent history, the November general election may be as important as the primary in terms of selecting statewide officeholders.

The spillover impact of the movement at the top of the ticket to other state offices is substantial. Newly open offices resulting from musical chairs and retirements include lieutenant governor, Senate president pro tempore, House minority leader, insurance commissioner and secretary of state. Additionally, a raft of senior House and Senate members will be leaving to run for other offices. This means new faces will occupy many key leadership and committee positions in 2019.

Among all of the changes, the Georgia House leadership structure appears to be the most stable area. Speaker David Ralston continues to lead the chamber with a steady hand, and most of his key committee chairman and leadership team members are likely to return in 2019. In the 2018 session, expect the House to be something of a buffer for the turmoil that will result from a large number of elected officials in the capitol positioning for higher office next year. In terms of areas of stability other than the House, expect the attorney general’s seat to remain occupied by Chris Carr, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Sam Olens’ term. Carr has a deep political background, excellent business community relationships and strong policy knowledge, and he is highly likely to win re-election.

From a business standpoint, the overriding goal in Georgia for the next year should be to remain nimble and anticipate the unexpected. It will also be important to pay close attention to the next generation of legislative leadership, specifically talented legislators who understand policy and politics and will rapidly move into influential positions over the next 18 months.

For additional information, please contact Ashley Groome or a member of McGuireWoods Consulting’s Georgia State Government Relations Group.

Ashley S. Groome, Senior Vice President and Director

Joshua N. Albert, Vice President

Brad L. Alexander, Senior Advisor

Robert L. Fortson, Senior Vice President

Lauren C. Greer, Assistant Vice President

Misty H. Holcomb, Senior Vice President

Eric Johnson, Senior Advisor

Zachary I. Johnson, Assistant Vice President

Danica R. Key, Assistant Vice President

Victor L. Moldovan, Senior Advisor

Russ Pennington, Vice President

Michael T. Shelnutt, Senior Vice President

William M. Talmadge, Assistant Vice President