Georgia Republican gubernatorial runoff candidate Brian Kemp hugs a supporter while making his way through a crowd after giving a victory speech during an election night party, Tuesday, July 24, 2018, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Trump-backed candidate Kemp wins Georgia GOP governor runoff

July 25, 2018 - 12:16 am

ATLANTA (AP) — With a damning secret recording of his opponent and a late endorsement from President Donald Trump's White House, Secretary of State Brian Kemp won a decisive victory Tuesday in the Republican runoff for Georgia governor.

A self-described "unapologetic conservative" whose campaign ran an eyebrow-raising ad that said he could use his own pickup truck to "round up criminal illegals," Kemp rode conservatives' contempt for the establishment to capitalize on his bare-knuckled, outsider politics.

He now faces Democrat Stacey Abrams, who could become the country's first black female governor, in a race that will test Democrats' assertion that changing demographics are turning Georgia from a GOP stronghold into a swing state. Among the most closely watched of the November midterms, the race already has drawn significant financial investments from both national parties.

Kemp thanked supporters at a party in his hometown of Athens, Georgia, and he credited Trump's backing for sealing his win. "They poured gasoline in the fire and fueled the Kemp surge to victory," Kemp said.

Kemp portrayed the race against Abrams as a battle with the "radical left" as Georgia's future hangs in the balance. "Do you want a governor who is going to answer to Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton?" he asked.

Abrams tweeted her reaction to Kemp's win Tuesday, saying "Tonight, I have an opponent: Kemp. The race for #GAGov may change, but our values never will. Service, faith & family guide our vision for GA: Affordable health care. Excellent public schools for every child. An economy that works for all."

"Stand with us," she wrote, followed by a link to a fundraising page.

Kemp beat once heavily favored Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who outraised Kemp more than 2-to-1 and had a Rolodex of endorsements from establishment Republicans including outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal, who was blocked by term limits from seeking a third term.

In a tweeted endorsement last week, Trump pointed to Kemp's tough stance on illegal immigration and support for gun rights. With days left in the race, Vice President Mike Pence also stumped for Kemp on the campaign trail. Both reiterated their support for Kemp in tweets Tuesday.

Kemp's victory is another endorsement success for Trump. He backed South Carolina congressional candidate Katie Arrington ahead of her upset of Republican Rep. Mark Sanford, and he helped Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama withstand a GOP primary challenge. That run could embolden the president to get even more involved in looming Republican primaries, including gubernatorial contests in Kansas, Tennessee, and Florida.

Nichole Jacobs went to Sandy Springs Christian Church to vote Tuesday for Kemp, citing his stance on immigration. Jacobs sends both her children to private schools, and feels her affluent Atlanta suburb is overrun with "illegal immigration."

"People are moving out of Sandy Springs to get into a better school district or putting their kids in private schools," Jacobs said.

Cagle began to lose ground after the release of a secret recording in June in which he says he helped pass a "bad public-policy" bill for political gain. The recording was made without Cagle's knowledge during a private conversation with former GOP gubernatorial rival Clay Tippins, who last week endorsed Kemp.

"Trump is a very powerful man," Cagle told watch party attendees Tuesday night in Atlanta after conceding to Kemp. He pumped his fist in the air, saying he put his best foot forward in the race as he congratulated Kemp.

"We have to rally behind him, so he can before the next governor of the state of Georgia," Cagle said of Kemp. "He is a person who is undeniably ready to lead this state."

Kemp had received widespread criticism — and national headlines — with television ads in which he pretends to intimidate a young man interested in his daughter with a shotgun and says he has a big pickup truck "just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself."

Kemp's opponents also hammered his record of securing voter data as secretary of state, in a line of attack likely to become a refrain for Abrams during the general election.

Cagle labeled Kemp "inKempetent," pointing to a 2015 incident in which Kemp's office inadvertently released Social Security numbers and other identifying information of millions of Georgia voters on disks sent to members of the media and political parties. Kemp said a member of his staff was responsible for the error, that person was fired, and procedures were changed.

Kemp's office made headlines again last year after security experts disclosed a gaping security hole that wasn't fixed until six months after it was first reported to election authorities. Personal data was again exposed for Georgia's 6.7 million voters, as were passwords used by county officials to access files.

Kemp's office blamed Kennesaw State University, which managed the system.

The general election campaign opens with Kemp presumed as the favorite in a state where Republican nominees typically garner about 52-53 percent of the statewide vote. But Democrats look to the enthusiasm — and money — behind Abrams, while arguing that Kemp's hard-line approach could turn off enough moderates and independents.

That strategy could turn on voters like Keenan Rogers, a 25-year-old Cagle supporter, who wasn't yet ready Tuesday night to heed his preferred candidate's endorsement of Kemp.

"My knee-jerk reaction is to vote for Stacey Abrams," Rogers said, but added that he wanted to do more research. "She might be a step forward for millennials ... But right now, I'm a little apprehensive."

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Associated Press writers Brinley Hineman in Sandy Springs, Georgia, Jeff Martin in Athens, Georgia, and Jonathan Landrum in Atlanta contributed to this report.