ROME, Ga. — It’s one of Hunter Hill’s favorite lines on the campaign trail: He came back from combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan convinced that Islamic terrorists are too weak to defeat America. The bigger battle may be at home.
"What will bring our country to its knees," he tells crowds, "are weak career politicians."
The former state senator has plunged into the race for Georgia governor with a soldier’s zeal. And at every turn, he emphasizes his background as a hardened former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger with the grit to make painful decisions to rein in spending.
His campaign bus is emblazoned with pictures of him in combat gear. He laces his stump speeches with reminders of his service. And even the name of his 19-city campaign journey drove home that militaristic message: It was called the "Battle-tested Leadership Tour."
At his events during an initial leg of the trip, a few dozen supporters crowded into chain restaurants to hear about his running war against liberals and who he terms as wishy-washy conservatives.
At the top of his list is Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the GOP front-runner whom Hill hopes to face in a runoff — if he can emerge as the No. 2 finisher in the May 22 race.
"There’s so much more we can be doing to move the conservative agenda forward in Georgia," he said. "And the values just aren’t going to be reflected in our policy if we elect a career politician."
That phrase — "career politician" — is invoked almost as much as Hill’s military service. And he’s using it to try to carve out a lane as a conservative outsider — despite a stint in the Georgia Senate — by tacking to Cagle’s right on a mix of largely economic issues.
He pledges to eliminate the state income tax over seven years, replacing much of the roughly $10 billion it generates each year with a broader sales tax. He would significantly cut the state budget to focus on education, public safety and transportation, which is where more than half the budget goes now. And he wants Georgia to double its infrastructure spending, which he said can be done without levying new taxes.
Hill doesn’t delve into specifics on the types of programs that would be on the chopping block. But he said if his plan means that some social services are eliminated, then his administration would make it easier for nonprofits and religious ministries to fill the void.
His main rivals describe his income tax plans as pie-in-the-sky fantasies, instead favoring more limited tax cuts. Gov. Nathan Deal, too, has warned that deeper cuts to Georgia’s income tax rate could jeopardize the state’s fiscal health.
"We have to be cautious about what we do in terms of undermining the financial structure of state government," Deal said in an interview, speaking generally about the GOP economic plans.
While he pledges to cut spending, as a senator, Hill voted for record state budgets.
Hill is unfazed by the criticism. He says the GOP federal tax overhaul — the signature accomplishment of the Republican-controlled Congress under President Donald Trump — gives the state a rare opening to seek deeper cuts. And invariably at campaign stops, he draws crackling applause with his tax-cut pledge.
A graduate of West Point, Hill completed Airborne School in 2000 and U.S. Army Ranger School a year later. In 2002, he commanded a rifle platoon that was sent to relieve U.S. Marines who were stationed at the Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan. Within months, he was assigned to join the first wave of troops to invade Iraq.
He didn’t see his first firefight until 2003, when Hill was part of the team involved in the attack on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons Qusay and Uday, who were both killed in a raid on a home in the northern city of Mosul.
A third tour of duty in 2007 took him back to Afghanistan on a mission to train police officers. His team constantly skirmished with Taliban fighters, who once ambushed the training center where Hill and other soldiers drilled recruits. His squad narrowly averted casualties.
He returned to Atlanta in 2008 with an itch to run for office, and he soon set his sights on state Sen. Doug Stoner, a Democrat in an Atlanta-based district that seemed ripe for a GOP takeover. He lost that race and focused on his career in executive coaching — until the district’s lines were redrawn by the Republican-dominated General Assembly to include more GOP voters in 2011. He narrowly ousted Stoner the next year.
Hill carved out a staunchly conservative record in an establishment-friendly district that covered chunks of Buckhead, Vinings and east Cobb County. That included a 2015 vote against a package of fees and taxes to raise $1 billion in new funds for infrastructure spending favored by GOP leaders.
He also alienated some in his well-heeled constituency with his vote for a "religious liberty" measure in 2016 that conservatives billed as a new layer of legal protection for the faithful and opponents derided as state-sanctioned discrimination that led to threats of corporate boycotts.
On the campaign trail, Hill relentlessly invokes that vote as prime evidence of his willingness to stand up for conservative values.
"I represented one of the tightest districts in the state Senate, and many of my constituents didn’t want me to vote for religious liberty," he told one group. "But I did it anyways because I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I know what it’s like to be in countries that don’t protect your religious liberty."
Of treason and turncoats
As Hill has risen in the polls — most surveys show him in a close race for second place with Secretary of State Brian Kemp — he’s come under more fire. And the sharpest attacks have involved his record on guns.
In a February forum, Hill suggested he was open to potentially raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 to buy certain assault rifles. His campaign has since said he misspoke and that he supports an across-the-board standard of 18 to buy firearms. His rivals have unloaded.
The fiercest attacks have come from businessman Clay Tippins, who aired an ad that compared Hill to Revolutionary War turncoat Benedict Arnold — complete with a Hill lookalike furtively dodging behind trees.
A wave of Hill allies and Republican leaders knocked Tippins, a former Navy SEAL, for accusing a fellow military veteran of treason. Among them is U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who called it a "desperate political attack."
Still, faced with repeated questions about his gun stance, Hill has launched a two-pronged counterattack. The first was an ad of his own showing him firing at a shooting range, slicing through a target and declaring he "won’t give an inch" on gun rights. Days later, he trumpeted an announcement about his "A" rating from the National Rifle Association.
At a recent stop at a barbecue joint in Hiram, where a few dozen supporters gathered on a cramped porch, he faced a question or two about his gun record. He also heard from several supporters who have never before attended a political rally — and he turned back to military terms to encourage each to take to the offensive for him.
"If we don’t engage," he said, "we will lose."
2018 governor’s race
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is profiling candidates for governor from the two major parties going into Georgia’s primary on May 22. Stories ran last week about the Democratic candidates, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans. This week, the AJC is profiling the Republicans in the race.
Greg Bluestein writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: gbluestein(at)ajc.com.
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