CLARKSTON, Ga. — The Republican gubernatorial primary in Georgia is shaping up as a contest over who's toughest on illegal immigration, with campaigns featuring a "deportation bus," a pickup truck for do-it-yourself immigrant roundups, and lots of tough talk about "criminal illegal aliens."
The themes echo both the tone and rhetoric used by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 election. But they don't take into account the complexities of immigration law, which clearly prohibits any of the would-be governors from carrying out some of the tough immigration enforcement measures they are promising.
State Sen. Michael Williams, former state co-chair for Trump's campaign, ran an ad featuring a "Deportation Bus" that he says will be used to send home people in the country illegally. The back of the bus warns of murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molesters and other criminals on board and says, "Follow me to Mexico."
Secretary of State Brian Kemp boasted in a spot released last week about owning a big truck, "in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself."
The five-candidate Republican primary on Tuesday is almost definitely headed for a runoff. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is viewed as the front-runner, but likely won't capture the necessary majority in the first round of voting.
With the possibility of a percentage point or two meaning the difference between their making it into a runoff or going home, the trailing candidates are doing what they can to catch voters' attention, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.
"It's kind of like a poker game: 'I'll see you and raise you two,'" he said of the extreme rhetoric.
It may also be the Trump effect.
"I think it's in part because President Trump was able to use it successfully to get elected himself," Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie said. "When he made the border wall an issue and made incendiary rhetoric OK, it's not surprising that some candidates would choose to follow his lead to try to replicate his playbook."
While that may work with the generally more conservative primary electorate, it could cause problems in the general election in November, Gillespie said.
"Georgia is a state that is very much on the move in terms of its economic development," she said, and in that respect people may not see a firebrand as the best representative.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, called the language in the ads repugnant, disgusting and racist. Some of Georgia's biggest industries, agriculture and tourism, depend on the labor of people in the country illegally, he said.
"Politicians are using immigrants as a scapegoat for appealing to racist feelings among their voter base and at the same time threatening to undermine Georgia's economic vitality by promising policies that would drive out immigrants from our state," Gonzalez said.
Current Gov. Nathan Deal has made attracting business to the state a cornerstone of his legacy. His office said he had no comment on the rhetoric coming from his party's candidates.
There has been a lot of tough talk on deporting people in the country illegally, but that is something state authorities don't control. Only the federal government has the authority to deport people.
D.A. King, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration who has long pushed for tougher enforcement measures, said he's glad to see attention on illegal immigration, but he thinks the candidates are just giving it lip service to appeal to conservative voters and haven't done much to actually fix the problem.
"People should recognize that illegal immigration is going to be here next year and it was here last year," he said. "Literally none of these (candidates) were talking about it a year ago in any measurable amount."
Rather than focusing on extreme rhetoric, he said, the candidates should be pushing to crack down on illegal employment and enforcement of strict immigration measures that are already on the books.
Williams on Wednesday took his "deportation bus tour" into Clarkston, a diverse city just outside Atlanta that has welcomed immigrants and refugees with open arms. The strip mall where he stopped is home to a Nepalese restaurant, an African restaurant and a Halal butcher and grocer.
He was met by protesters, including Clarkston resident Joan Coles, who said Williams was using scare tactics to demonize immigrants. Heval Kelli, a Syrian refugee and immigration advocate who came to Clarkston after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, arrived with baklava to show Williams that immigrants are welcoming.
Williams dismissed criticism that his rhetoric is racist. He acknowledged that some people here illegally are working hard and trying to provide for their families, but said he's interested in upholding the law.
"It's not fair to everybody else if we just turn a blind eye to those who are breaking the law," he said.