ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal waded into the Republican primary runoff to succeed him Monday, endorsing Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle over Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Deal made the endorsement in Atlanta with just more than a week left before the heated battle is decided July 24, calling Cagle the right person to continue the work he started as governor.
"I think he is the best one to continue this tradition. My concern is let's not undo or transform in a negative fashion the good reforms that have been put in place," Deal said.
Cagle has long sought to position himself as the torch-bearer of Deal's pro-business legacy and frequently ties himself to Deal on the campaign trail.
The key endorsement comes at a pivotal time for Cagle, a once heavy favorite who has been losing ground in public polling since a secret recording was released last month in which Cagle says he backed what he called a "bad public policy" for political gain.
The recording was made without Cagle's knowledge by a former GOP gubernatorial rival, Clay Tippins, and portions of the conversation have since been released to the media by Tippins and by Kemp's campaign.
Kemp's campaign responded with a statement calling Deal's endorsement a "last-minute attempt to distract voters from the secret recording."
Deal's endorsement came just two days after Cagle was joined on the campaign trail by president-elect of the National Rifle Association, Oliver North, for stops in Savannah, Kennesaw and Gainesville on Saturday.
The NRA threw its weight behind Cagle in April after he helped kill a tax break that would have saved Delta Air Lines, one of the state's largest employers, millions per year for ending a discount program for NRA members.
While Cagle has maintained strong support from Republican elected officials in the state, including a number of his colleagues in the state senate, Kemp has seen success positioning himself as an outsider candidate and a "politically incorrect conservative."
Kemp has also managed to win support from all three Republicans who did not advance to the runoff after being beaten by Cagle and Kemp in the initial May 22 primary.
Former state Sen. Hunter Hill, who came in third in the race after being the target of attacks by Cagle, is set to endorse Kemp on Tuesday, Kemp's campaign announced Sunday. Hill's endorsement was seen as a significant win for Kemp, because Hill performed well in areas of the state where Cagle was otherwise dominating, like Atlanta's suburbs.
The fourth-place finisher, Tippins, has yet to formally endorse Kemp. But he has shown support by providing portions of the secret recording he made of Cagle to Kemp's campaign to release, and his wife Lori made an appearance at a Kemp rally in Carrollton earlier this month.
State Sen. Michael Williams, who finished fifth in the May 22 primary and was once co-chairman of Donald Trump's state campaign, endorsed Kemp in June.
Early in-person voting began July 2.
The winner faces Democrat Stacey Abrams in the general election in November.