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Congressional candidates back Trump in debate

Georgia’s Republican congressional candidates rallied around Donald Trump Friday, in a show of unity behind the presumptive GOP nominee.

Nearly every GOP candidate present at the taping of the Atlanta Press Club’s congressional debates, which are set to air Sunday afternoon on Georgia Public Broadcasting, said they would support Trump if he becomes the party’s nominee in July. That included every Republican on the May 24 primary ballot in the Third, Ninth and Eleventh congressional districts, as well as the majority of those running in the Fourteenth district and for the U.S. Senate race. (Incumbents Tom Graves and Johnny Isakson did not attend the debates.)

“We need to support the Republican nominee,” said William Llop, who is challenging incumbent Barry Loudermilk in the Eleventh Congressional District. “We need to support and all get behind Donald Trump.”

The rhetoric Friday shows state Republicans who are eager to join the fight against Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, after months of infighting. Trump carried Georgia by more than 14 percentage points during the March 1 presidential primary, but supporters of Ted Cruz had leveraged their organizational prowess to secure delegates in the state that would support the Texas U.S. senator in the event of a contested convention.

The path cleared for Trump, however, after Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out of the presidential race earlier this week.

“We’ve got to unite the Republican Party because our country hangs in the balance,” said former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, who is running in the Ninth District. “If we don’t come together and support Mr. Trump, who is obviously the people’s choice as a candidate, it’s absolutely dangerous that somebody like Hillary Clinton might be elected.”

Ninth District U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, was less clear when asked about U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who became the highest-ranking elected Republican to reject the Trump when he said Thursday he was “just not ready” yet to support the billionaire’s presidential campaign.

“We do have to come together,” Collins said. “To do that we have to take those steps toward each other. The speaker brought that out. He said we’re going to come together and talk.” A spokesman later confirmed that Collins would vote for Trump if he is the nominee.

One Georgia Republican said he could not yet commit to supporting Trump.

Isakson challenger Derrick Grayson, a MARTA engineer and Stone Mountain minister, said he would need to see more from Trump during the presidential debates, particularly related to healthcare and the military.

“I want somebody that I can support that believes in 100 percent of the Constitution 100 percent of the time and if Donald Trump can convince me that’s where he stands then I will give him my vote,” he said.

Many of the Republicans running in the Ninth District said they would also support Trump’s proposal to temporarily bar Muslim migrants from entering the U.S. in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in Europe.

“Donald apparently was not politically correct but he was very right in his common sense approach that you have to stop the danger,” said Bernie Fontaine, a veteran running in the deep-red northeast Georgia district. “We need to quit talking about theory and let’s live in the real world.”

The debate marked one of the final times the candidates would share the same stage before the May 24 primaries. Early voting has already begun across the state.

Primary challengers used the event to position themselves as political outsiders who could mend voters’ broken trust in Washington. They hammered the Republican incumbents for votes on a massive government spending bill in December 2015.

“The easy vote would have been to simply make a political statement, come back home and be a hero,” said Loudermilk in defense of his vote on the bill. “I’m not going to stand and let the others take the shots because I ran for the Eleventh District to protect our water rights, to protect our military.”

Meanwhile, the Republican debate for the open Third District congressional seat focused on state politics. Nearly all of the candidates on stage slammed Gov. Nathan Deal for his recent vetoes ‘campus carry’ legislation that would have legalized firearms on Georgia’s public college campuses and a ‘religious liberty’ bill that would have broadened legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage.

It was another sign that both measures are fast becoming a litmus test in the heavily conservative district. All seven GOP candidates said they disagreed with Deal’s veto of the gun rights expansion.

“Gov. Deal was a Washington politician before he came back to run Georgia, and the business community came back to use its clout on the governor,” said businessman Chip Flanegan.

Only one contender, film producer Richard Mix, said he agreed with Deal’s veto of the “religious liberty” proposal.

“I don’t think we need more legislation. It’s always the political answer to regulate, regulate, regulate and the political answer to legislate, legislate, legislate,” Mix said. “We need to use the laws already on the books.”

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