Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams sparred over health care, crime and punishment, and voting rights in a Monday debate as they made their closing arguments to voters in a reprise of their fiercely contested 2018 race for the same job.
The stakes for this night were arguably higher for Abrams, who has trailed in most recent polling of the race. Kemp, one of the few prominent Republicans to resist former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election in 2020, has positioned himself as a more traditional, pro-business conservative – a tack that his gentle resistance to Trump reinforced with swing voters. Abrams has argued that Kemp shouldn’t get any 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 his opponents and plainly stated his desire to send the election to a run-off. (If no one receives 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 emerging the narrow victor, who dominated the debate stage. Their disagreements were pointed, as they were in 2018, their attacks and rebuttals well-rehearsed and, to a large degree, predictable.
Here are the four main takeaways from the Georgia governor’s 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, tried anyway – to connect Abrams to Biden, who, despite winning the state in 2020, is a deeply unpopular figure there now.
“I would remind you that Stacey Abrams campaigned to be Joe Biden’s running mate,” Kemp said, referring to the chatter around Abrams potentially being chosen as his running mate two years ago.
During an exchange with the moderators about abortion, Kemp pivoted to the economy – and again, invoked Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“Georgians should know that my desire is to continue to help them fight through 40-year high inflation and high gas prices and other things that our Georgia families are facing right now, quite honestly, because of bad policies in Washington, DC, from President Biden and the Democrats that have 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 in Georgia. First lady Jill Biden visited last week for an Abrams fundraiser, where she criticized Kemp over his position on abortion as well as his refusal to expand Medicaid and voting rights.
Early on in the night, Kemp was questioned about remarks he made – taped without his knowledge – at a tailgate with University of Georgia College Republicans in which he expressed some openness to a push to ban contraceptive drugs like “Plan B.”
Asked if he would pursue such legislation if reelected, Kemp said, “No, I would not” and that “it’s not my desire to” push further abortion restrictions, before pivoting 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, though he didn’t seem enthusiastic, said, “You could take up pretty much everything, but you’ve got to be in legislative session to do that.”
When asked if it was something he could do, Kemp said, “It just depends on where the legislators are,” and that he’d “have to check and see because there are a lot of legalities.”
Georgia in 2019 passed and Kemp signed a so-called “heartbeat” bill, which bans abortions at around six weeks, and went into effect soon after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. v. Wade. Before the ruling, abortion was legal in the state until 20 weeks into pregnancy.
Abrams has promised to work to “reverse” the law, though she would face significant headwinds in the GOP-controlled state legislature, and called 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 in arguing that she was not conceding the contest, because Kemp, as the state’s top elections official, and his allies had unfairly worked to suppress the vote. Instead, Abrams said then, she would only “acknowledge” him as the winner.
Some Republicans have tried to make hay over the speech, in a measure of whataboutism usually attached to Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 results. Abrams, apart from a court challenge, never tried to overturn the outcome of her race.
Still, she was asked on Monday night whether she would accept the results of the coming election – and said yes – before again accusing Kemp of, through the state’s new restrictive voting law, SB 202, seeking to make it more difficult for people to cast ballots.
“Brian Kemp was the secretary of state,” Abrams said, recalling her opponent’s old job. “He has assiduously denied access to the right to vote.”
Kemp countered by pointing to high turnout numbers over the past few elections and, as he’s said before, insisted the law made it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
When the candidates were given the chance to question one another, 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 are trying to do is continue the lie that you’ve told so many times I think you believe it’s true. I support law enforcement and did so 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 police. The reality, she said, was less cut-and-dry.
“Like most Georgians, I lead a complicated life where we need access to help but we also need to know we are safe from racial violence,” she said, before turning to Kemp. “While you might not have had that experience, too many people I know, have.”
Kemp, though, kept the message simple. “I support safety and justice,” he said, often pointing to his anti-gang initiatives – especially when he was pressed on the effect of his loosening gun laws on crime.