An unexpected GOP fight for state Senate leadership positions prematurely sets battle lines between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp for the 2018 Republican nomination for governor, sources say.

Butch Miller of Gainesville recently surprised GOP Senators by deciding to challenge longtime President Pro Tempore David Shafer of Duluth, seen as a Cagle ally, for the Senate’s No. 2 post.

Miller previously said he would run for majority leader against Judson Hill of Marietta. Now, with Miller shooting for the higher post, Bill Cowsert of Athens is running for majority leader against Hill.

Miller and Cowsert’s shifts are seen as orchestrated by Kemp with Athens political consultant Joel McElhannon behind the moves, according to the sources. McEllhannon advised Kemp during his re-election effort and publicly criticized Cagle’s campaign just the day after the election.

The moves are seen as a test of Cagle’s power and as setting the stage for a Kemp gubernatorial campaign in four years. (Kemp, who also comes from Athens, is Cowsert’s brother-in-law.)

Miller’s change of direction sets up a three-person race for president pro tem between him, Shafer and Renee Unterman of Buford, who announced her candidacy previously. In the majority leader’s race, Cowsert and Hill are seeking to replace retiring Ronnie Chance of Tyrone. 

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