Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp clashed in testy exchanges Monday on questions on the economy, education and guns during the first of two scheduled debates in Georgia’s gubernatorial election.
Kemp, the incumbent governor, and Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, frequently took direct aim at one another’s policies while often ignoring Libertarian Party nominee Shane Hazel, the third candidate on stage in Atlanta, who polls show has virtually no hope of winning in November. The meeting between the two frontrunners is a rematch of their close 2018 matchup in which Kemp bested Abrams by a margin of less than 2% of the vote.
This time around, Kemp ran on his record as governor, praising his decision to lift COVID-19 restrictions earlier than other states while attempting to frame Abrams as soft on crime. Abrams countered that with Kemp as governor, homicides and shootings have spiked in each of the last two years.
Kemp also emphasized Abrams’s ties to President Biden, making the case that Democratic policies have harmed the economy.
“I would remind you that Stacey Abrams ran to be Joe Biden’s running mate,” Kemp said. “She supports these policies.”
Abrams, meanwhile, portrayed Kemp’s anti-abortion and gun policies as “dangerous” and used Monday’s debate to try to appeal to undecided conservative voters by highlighting her plans for expanding small business opportunities and championing her plan to raise salaries for teachers.
“Brian Kemp does not have a plan,” Abrams said of the governor’s handling of minority-owned businesses. “It was only until July of this year that he finally acknowledged that there might be a problem. He said we might need to study it. I would tell him to cheat off my paper. I know the answer.”
Abrams presented her vision for the state as one of helping to keep it safe from a variety of threats, especially the horrific mass shootings that have been carried out in schools across the nation.
“These are communities that want to be safe,” Abrams said midway through the debate, highlighting Kemp’s latest gun law, which allows for permitless carry around the state. “They don’t want to have to carry weapons. … We can protect the Second Amendment and second graders.”
Recent polling shows Abrams continues to trail Kemp, but that margin appears to be shrinking, with about three weeks remaining until election day. The most recent CBS News Battleground Tracker poll shows Kemp leading Abrams 52% to 46%, while the most recent Quinnipiac poll from last week shows Abrams behind by just one percentage point.
An estimated 4 million people will vote in this year’s midterm election, with at least half of those voters expected to vote early. Abrams, who founded Fair Fight, an organization that addresses voter suppression, hopes that upwards of 200,000 Georgians will get out and vote in this first week of early voting.
As of 4:15 p.m. ET on Monday, with several hours of voting still to go on the first day of early voting, at least 100,000 Georgians had cast their ballots, according to Gabriel Sterling, a top Georgia election official.
“This blows away the previous midterm 1st day record of approximately 72,000 and we have lots of voting to go today,” Sterling tweeted Monday.
Notably absent from the debate was any discussion of reparations for Black Americans. Abrams had raised the subject last week.
“I said Yes to reparations,” Abrams tweeted Sunday in a thread. “I always have. But I will never mislead Black people by pretending this is easy.”
Many critics believe this one issue could energize a large number Black voters on Election Day, which Abrams knows she needs to mobilize to have a chance to outlast Kemp. Abrams has made it a point to increase support among Black voters, particularly Black men. At a July event this year she proclaimed, “If Black men vote for me, I will win Georgia.”
At the time, Kemp held a 5-point lead over her, with key metrics indicating that Abrams has 90% of the Black female vote but just 80% of the Black male vote, with another 10% still undecided. While Republicans typically garner about 10% of the Black vote, experts say Democratic politicians cannot afford to slip far below 90% of the Black vote overall and still expect to win.
Yet, reparations is also a highly divisive topic for Republicans and independent white voters, some of whom Abrams courted Monday night, as when she quoted former GOP president and icon Ronald Reagan, saying she wanted to “trust but verify” when it comes to her views on preserving the Second Amendment while enforcing common sense gun legislation.
Cover thumbnail: AP Photo/Ben Gray