Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams sparred on health care, crime and punishment and voting rights in a Monday debate as they made their closing arguments to voters in a repeat of their hotly contested race for the same job in 2018.
The stakes for tonight were arguably higher for Abrams, who has been trailing in the race’s most recent polls. Kemp, one of the few prominent Republicans who resisted former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election, has positioned himself as a more traditional, pro-business conservative — a blow that his gentle opposition to Trump reinforced with swing voters. Abrams has argued that Kemp should receive no special credit for doing his job and not breaking the law.
Kemp and Abrams were joined by Libertarian nominee Shane Hazel, who took shots at both of his opponents and made clear his desire to send the election to a recount. (If no one gets a clear majority on Election Day, the top two finishers advance to a one-on-one contest.) But it was the two major party candidates who ran tight campaigns four years ago, with Kemp the narrow victory. that dominated the debate scene. Their disagreements were pointed as they were in 2018, their attacks and rebuttals well-rehearsed and largely predictable.
Here are the four main takeaways from the Georgia gubernatorial debate:
Like Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker did in his debate with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock last week, Kemp took every opportunity — and when they weren’t there, he tried anyway — to connect Abrams with Biden, who despite winning the state in 2020, is a deeply unpopular figure there now.
“I want to remind you that Stacey Abrams campaigned to be Joe Biden’s running mate,” Kemp said, referring to talk of Abrams potentially being chosen as his running mate two years ago.
During an exchange with the moderators about abortion, Kemp turned to the economy — again invoking Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“Georgians should know that my desire is to continue to help them fight through 40 years of high inflation and high gas prices and other things that our families in Georgia are facing right now, frankly, because of bad policies in Washington, DC, from President Biden and the Democrats who are in complete control,” he said.
Abrams, unlike so many other Democrats running this year, has not sought to distance herself from the president and recently said publicly that she would welcome him to Georgia. First Lady Jill Biden visited an Abrams fundraiser last week, criticizing Kemp over his stance on abortion as well as his refusal to expand Medicaid and voting rights.
Earlier in the night, Kemp was questioned about remarks he made — recorded without his knowledge — at a tailgate with the University of Georgia College Republicans, where he expressed some openness to a push to ban contraceptives like “Plan B.”
Asked if he would pursue such legislation if re-elected, Kemp said, “No, I wouldn’t” and that “it’s not my desire to” push further abortion restrictions, before turning to an attack on Biden, national Democrats and more talk about his economic record.
Pressed on the remarks, Kemp suggested he was just humoring a group of people he didn’t know.
On the tape, Kemp said, though he didn’t seem excited, “You can bring up pretty much anything, but you have to be in legislative session to do it.”
When asked if it was something he could do, Kemp said, “It just depends on where the lawmakers are,” and that he would “have to check and see because there are a lot of legalities.”
In 2019, Georgia passed and Kemp signed a so-called “heartbeat law,” which bans abortions for about six weeks, and went into effect shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. v. Wade. Before the ruling, abortion was legal in the state up to 20 weeks into pregnancy.
Abrams has vowed to work to “reverse” the law, though she would face significant headwinds in the GOP-controlled state legislature, calling the state law “cruel.”
One of the first questions posed to Abrams centered on her speech effectively — but not with the precise language — conceding the 2018 election to Kemp.
In those remarks, Abrams made a symbolic point by arguing that she did not accept the contest because Kemp, as the state’s top election official, and his allies had unfairly worked to suppress the vote. Instead, Abrams said at the time that she would only “acknowledge” him as the winner.
Some Republicans have tried to make hay over the speech, to a degree usually associated with Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 results. Abrams, except for a lawsuit, never tried to overturn the outcome of her race.
Still, she was asked Monday night if she would accept the outcome of the upcoming election — and said yes — before again accusing Kemp of seeking to make it harder for people to vote through the state’s new electoral restriction law, SB 202. ballot papers.
“Brian Kemp was secretary of state,” Abrams said, recalling his opponent’s old job. “He has diligently denied access to the right to vote.”
Kemp countered by pointing to high voter turnout numbers over the past few elections and, as he has said before, insisted the law made it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
When the candidates got a chance to question each other, Kemp asked Abrams to name all the sheriffs who had endorsed her campaign.
The answer, of course, was that most law enforcement groups in the state are behind the Republican — a point he returned to throughout the debate.
“Mr. Kemp, what you’re trying to do is perpetuate the lie that you’ve told so many times that I believe you believe it to be true. I support law enforcement and did for 11 years (in state government),” Abrams said. “I worked closely with the sheriff’s association.”
Abrams also accused Kemp of cynically trying to weaponize criminal justice and public safety issues by pitting her against the police. The reality, she said, was less cut and dry.
“Like most Georgians, I live a complicated life where we need access to help, but we also need to know that we are safe from racial violence,” she said before turning to Kemp. “While you may not have had that experience, far too many people I know have.”
However, Kemp kept the message simple. “I support safety and justice,” he said, often pointing to his anti-gang initiatives — especially when pressed on the impact of his loosened gun laws on crime.