ATLANTA — Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams traded harsh attacks on Georgia’s elections during the pair’s final debate Sunday before Georgia’s Nov. 8 election, while elaborating on their positions on abortion and offering sharply differing visions for the state’s economy.
Kemp avoided a categorical promise not to sign further abortion restrictions, saying “it’s not my desire to go move the needle any further.” But he acknowledged that more restrictions might be passed by a Republican legislature, saying that “we’ll look at those when the time comes.”
Abrams pointed out that equivocation, saying, “Let’s be clear, he did not say he wouldn’t.”
Kemp criticized Abrams as inconsistent on what restrictions she would support. Abrams argued she had not changed her position and said she would support legal abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb.
Kemp denied claims by Democrats that under Georgia’s abortion restrictions, which restrict most abortions after cardiac activity can be detected in the womb, women could be prosecuted for abortions or investigated after miscarriages. The governor revealed that his wife had miscarried one of what had been twins, while the other survived to become his eldest daughter, calling it a “tragic, traumatic situation.”
Abrams, though, said it was up to local law enforcement and district attorneys and that it wasn’t clear local authorities won’t attempt prosecutions. Abrams said women “should not be worried about the knock on the door is the sheriff coming to ask them if they have had an illegal abortion.”
Though Kemp and Abrams disputed issues with specificity throughout the 60-minute debate, they reserved their most personal back-and-forth for a discussion of voting rights, exposing the origins of a rivalry that goes back to when Kemp was secretary of state and Abrams was a state House member, before each ran for governor in 2018.
Kemp’s version is that he’s made it “easy to vote and hard to cheat” in Georgia, while Abrams has spent “the last 10 years running around telling you that’s not the case.” He added the barb that she’s “benefited personally from that running around,” noting Abrams’ personal financial success since her 2018 defeat.
Abrams answered that Kemp “has spent 16 years attacking the right to vote in Georgia,” most recently with the 2021 elections law overhaul that, among its provisions, enacted new rules around voting by mail.
Kemp noted that early vote totals have already reached 1.6 million, far outpacing 2018, with early voting running through Friday. He also highlighted record primary turnout for both major parties earlier this year — points that Abrams said obscure other state actions that she said have made it harder for people to cast their ballots.
“The fact that people are voting is in spite of SB 202, not because of it,” she said, referring to the GOP election law. “It was never about making sure that we had fair elections in Georgia. It was about gaming the election for Brian Kemp so he could keep people out of the polling place.”
Kemp took credit for wage growth and low unemployment while blaming sustained inflation on “disastrous” policies of Democrats in Washington, while Abrams sidestepped her party’s role in the federal government and pointed the finger at Kemp.
“We have the lowest unemployment rate in the history of our state,” he said. “We have the most people ever working in the history of our state. We’re seeing economic opportunity in all parts of our state.”
Kemp touted his use of state and federal funds to suspend gasoline taxes and issue income tax rebates, repeating his pledge to seek more income tax rebates plus property tax rebates in a second term.
Abrams argued that Kemp’s economy hasn’t boosted enough Georgians. She pointed to her proposals to spend the state surplus on raises for teachers and some law enforcement officers, expand Medicaid, boost child care programs for working parents, among other proposals.
“Right now people are feeling economic pain, and unfortunately under this governor, that pain is getting worse,” Abrams said.
Kemp and Abrams drew sharp distinctions on crime, with the Republican governor attempting to cast Abrams as a supporter of the “defund the police” movement and touting his endorsements from dozens of sheriffs across the state.
“He is lying again. I’ve never said that I believe in defunding the police. I believe in public safety and accountability,” Abrams shot back, highlighting her proposals for spending more on law enforcement with Kemp.
While Kemp highlighted his administration’s push to curtail gang activity and violence in Georgia, Abrams criticized the administration for not thinking “holistically” about the root causes of crime, blaming Kemp’s loosening of gun laws for a rise in violence.
“What is most concerning to me is that you are minimizing the death,” Abrams said. “People are dying from gun violence in the state of Georgia; children are dying. It is the No. 1 killer of our children.”
Kemp defended his policies, saying he had provided aid to state and local law enforcement, but that rising violence was ultimately not his fault.
“We are not the local police department. I’m not the mayor. I’m the governor,” Kemp shot back, adding that local law enforcement agencies “know I will have their back.”
Sunday’s match was the third debate overall between the two rivals. They met only once in 2018, with Kemp, then secretary of state, skipping a second debate to attend a rally with then-President Donald Trump.
Kemp leads in most polls, but Abrams argues that her focus on getting out infrequent Democratic voters may be missed by surveys.
Unlike the first governor’s debate on Oct. 17, Sunday night’s event did not feature Libertarian Shane Hazel, the third candidate on the ballot. Hazel interrupted that debate several times trying to make his points because he wasn’t asked as many questions. Hazel’s presence on the ballot means it’s possible that there will be a runoff on Dec. 6, because Georgia law requires candidates to win an absolute majority.