5 takeaways from the Georgia governor’s debate: Kemp and Abrams came ready
By Reid J. Epstein and Maya King
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, and Stacey Abrams, the Democrat he narrowly beat in 2018 who is challenging him again in 2022, have spent the past four years preparing for a rematch.
Monday night’s debate in Atlanta, the lone time during this year’s campaign for Georgia governor that the candidates were scheduled to appear onstage together, was a demonstration of the political animus the two have had toward each other. Kemp and Abrams came versed in the other’s record — Abrams on Kemp’s tenure as governor (and, before that, secretary of state and state senator), and Kemp largely on statements Abrams has made as a candidate and as Georgia’s top Democratic political organizer.
The debate, which also included a low-polling Libertarian candidate, Shane Hazel, was a substantive hour that allowed Kemp and Abrams to demonstrate the stark differences between them. Few undecided voters who watched would be confused about how either would seek to govern.
Each candidate survived the debate without committing any major errors, although Abrams did at one point apologize for “my outburst” after interrupting Kemp.
Here are five key takeaways from the debate:
Biden makes things awkward for everybody.
Republicans across the country are painting President Joe Biden’s America as an inflation-and-crime-scarred hellscape that can be saved only by conservative policies. But not in Georgia.
Kemp described his state, after nearly four years of his leadership, as a place with a thriving economy, new businesses moving in and fully funded police departments that ably address local crime.
Democrats everywhere else are making a case that things are pretty good right now. Trillions of dollars of new federal spending kept the economy afloat and are helping keep people employed. But not in Georgia.
Abrams ticked through a laundry list of local ills she attributed to Kemp, including spiking crime, rising home prices and the Chinese government’s buying up of large segments of the state’s farmland.
“We live in a state of fear,” she said. “And this is a governor who, for the last four years, has beat his chest but delivered very little for most Georgians.”
For each candidate, taking the opposite tack from their national party comes with some risk. Kemp’s sunny-days-are-here approach runs counter to the message Republican voters are hearing in their siloed media environment. But Abrams, who is trailing in the polls, is foreclosing receiving any help from Biden or national Democrats by stressing to voters that things are terrible.
Abrams is ready to talk about race.
Abrams would be the first Black female governor of any state if elected, and she has not been shy about talking about the role race plays in Georgia’s politics. Early in the debate, an exchange over crime and policing gave her an opportunity to underline that dynamic.
Kemp has aimed to tie Abrams to the movement to defund the police ever since she endorsed police reform at the height of protests against police brutality in the summer of 2020. During the second round of the debate, when candidates can ask one another questions, he asked her how many members of law enforcement in Georgia had endorsed her campaign. She answered by suggesting that Kemp’s support came from long-entrenched power centers in the state.
Kemp would be happy to discuss the pandemic.
It almost didn’t matter what the question was — Kemp tried to make the answer that he reopened Georgia’s businesses and schools sooner than any other state in 2020.
Asked about racial disparities, the local economy, expanding Medicaid or what to do about a state budget surplus, Kemp reminded viewers that he rushed to open the state’s economy before federal public health experts — and even, at the time, President Donald Trump — thought it was prudent.
Kemp said Georgia was the first state to reopen the “small parts” of the state that had closed during the pandemic. “Our recovery’s been as good as any state in the country. We have had two record years of economic development, because of our business environment, working with the General Assembly, to make sure that we’re putting Georgians first and Georgia businesses and Georgia workers first.”
Kemp and Abrams really do not agree on gun policy.
In a debate heavy on policy discussions, one about firearms provided a cleareyed look at each candidate’s position.
Kemp signed a law in 2022 that allows anyone in the state to carry a firearm without a license. Abrams has made that law one of her foremost criticisms of the governor’s policy agenda, saying it endangers Georgians and could lead to more mass shootings like that of 2021, where a gunman killed eight people when he opened fire in several Atlanta-area Asian spas. Kemp defended the law, saying it helps vulnerable people defend themselves, including Black Americans and women, two groups he cited.
“The criminals are the only ones that do have the guns,” he argued, railing against “local governments that are holding up concealed-weapon permits.”
He went on to argue that every person who purchased a firearm was subject to a federal background check — a point that Abrams was quick to correct, interjecting to say that purchases of guns at private sales and gun shows did not require background checks. She later apologized to Kemp for the interruption.
Yes, a Libertarian named Shane Hazel is running, too.
We’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again: A little-known candidate made a memorable appearance during a debate that was almost entirely about the others onstage.
Add Georgia’s Shane Hazel to a list that includes the Rent-Is-Too-Damn-High guy and the time Jim Webb casually mentioned he killed someone.
Before his prime-time debut, Hazel was last seen taking 28% in a 2018 Republican primary for a suburban Atlanta House seat. He spent his speaking time Monday calling for Georgia to adopt a purist Libertarian philosophy: ending public education, eliminating virtually all police functions, legalizing drugs and stopping property taxes. It was a performance that often befuddled Kemp and Abrams as he made references to “Austrian economics” that few unversed in Libertarian principles would catch.
Yet, Hazel could play an outsize role in the election. Georgia law requires a winner to receive at least 50% of the vote. If Hazel draws enough votes from the two leading candidates — and, more plausibly, from Kemp — it could force them into a December runoff and an extra month of campaigning. If another debate takes place then, it won’t include Hazel.