ATLANTA (AP) — Casey Cagle uses a Coweta County apprenticeship program as a key plank in his campaign for governor in a pledge to add half a million new jobs in Georgia in four years if voters choose him to replace term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal.
Cagle's decision isn't a surprise; the three-term lieutenant governor long has been included on lists of potential candidates for 2018. He confirmed to The Associated Press ahead of a formal launch event planned for Sunday afternoon in Duluth.
Two other Republicans already announced bids for 2018: Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state Sen. Hunter Hill of Smyrna. On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is widely expected to make a run.
Others still considering a campaign include State Rep. Stacey Evans of Smyrna and Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
Hill was in Coweta County at a cookout for community leaders Thursday night with a campaign aide, and Kemp attended a version of the same cookout in the fall, adding more signs of the importance to the county's role in next year's election.
A rapidly growing suburb of Atlanta, Coweta County is solidly Republican, giving 69 percent of its votes to Donald Trump in last year's presidential race, even as some other reliably red counties around Atlanta barely gave him a majority. And its innovative school system has drawn frequent visits from Cagle in recent years because of his support of the Central Educational Center that operates the state's first college-and-career academy thanks to several laws the lieutenant governor sponsored.
Cagle told the AP that meeting the jobs commitment will be his central focus if elected, and that he can meet the target by focusing on a combination of existing business expansions, new companies wooed away from other states and startup incubator programs at regional universities.
"I'm confident that we can do it," Cagle said. "I'm going to be a governor who's going to work day and night to create the environment, but also make the ask and be the state's No. 1 champion for meeting with companies and requesting them to locate here in Georgia."
It's a high bar. State Department of Labor data shows Georgia has added a net total of 267,100 jobs in the last decade, accounting for the enormous job losses that followed the recession that began in 2008. In the last six years, employers added nearly 518,000 jobs to help the state dig out from a deep hole.
Cagle said he also wants to overhaul the state's method of planning maintenance on roads and other infrastructure, increase Georgia's high school graduation rate and lower taxes on individuals and small businesses by adjusting income tax exemptions and deductions.
The themes echo Cagle's priorities while serving in the state Senate prior to becoming lieutenant governor in 2006.
He has long backed expansion of charter schools, including a network of specialized charters called College and Career Academies that pair high school students with industries. As governor, Cagle said he'd ensure every high school student "has access" to one of those schools and expand programs like the industrial-mechanics apprenticeship in Coweta County that rolled out in 2016.
Cagle said each strategy is part of a "war on dropouts." The most recent national study, based on 2013 figures, found 8.7 percent of Georgians between 16 and 24 lacked a high school degree, higher than the national average of 6.8 percent.
"We have many different tools to meet students where they are, to put them on a path of greater prosperity," Cagle said. "This is how we build a workforce in Georgia that becomes second to none."
Hill, a member of the state Senate that Cagle presides over, was also talking about education during his campaign visit to Newnan, stressing his support for giving parents more choice over where their children attend school.
The field is expected to grow increasingly crowded this spring as candidates in both major parties jostle for key fundraisers and other support ahead of primaries next spring.
"Races in our state have become very costly and this is the time you have to start raising the dollars," said Eric Tanenblatt, who was former Gov. Sonny Perdue's chief of staff. He hasn't committed to a candidate in the 2018 governor's race.
Another question remains as unsettled as the field: What role will President Donald Trump play in midterm elections across the country in 2018, including in Georgia's gubernatorial race?
"Any Republican would be lying to you if they told you they didn't have a little concern about the energy on the Democrats' side against this administration," said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant who doesn't plan to work on the governor's race.
Georgia is in the midst of an early test of Trump's influence. In suburban Atlanta, Democrat Jon Ossoff raised at least $8 million for a special election in the conservative 6th Congressional District and narrowly missed the majority needed for a first-round win against a wide field of GOP candidates in the April primary. Republican Karen Handel has heartily embraced Trump as she prepares for the June runoff.
Cagle believes Trump's base, particularly in Georgia's rural areas, won't penalize him for his political experience. Their vote was against "insider" influence on politics, he said.
Republican hopefuls also must walk a political tightrope on "religious liberty" proposals, a top priority for conservative groups that remain a vocal part of the GOP base.
Cagle supported a bill creating legal protections for people acting on religious faith in 2016. More than 500 companies joined a coalition led by Coca-Cola and other big-name Georgia firms opposing the measure, and Deal vetoed it, saying Georgia doesn't have to "discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community."
Cagle said he "will not stand for discrimination in any form" if elected governor, including acts against "individuals of faith."
"I believe that our current law and our current constitution — both state and federal — does protect our religious liberties," he said. "But if there is a problem, then I will be a governor that will seek to find a solution to that."
Newnan reporter Walter Jones contributed to this story.