Abrams and Kemp spar over crime and Covid in first debate

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Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams, renewed their rivalry on Monday in a debate that reprised differences over combating crime and managing Covid, without either candidate forcing the other off-script.

Thirty-one months since the first Covid-19 lockdown, Kemp touted his record as the first governor to allow businesses to reopen during the pandemic and argued that Georgia had lower unemployment rates and a budget surplus because of his decisions.

Abrams countered that the surplus was largely the result of increased federal spending to states, and argued that it should be used to invest in education for children and expand Medicaid.

Every poll this year has shown Kemp leading Abrams, including those surveyed during his primary campaign, according to RealClearPolitics’ aggregation. The latest poll from Quinnipiac University has Kemp up by 1 point over Abrams with 50 percent support.

The fierce rivalry between the two candidates, who ran a bitter campaign against each other in 2018, was tempered in part by the presence of the Libertarian Party nominee, Shane Hazel, who took shots at each of the major-party candidates for supporting public education, the Federal Reserve and income taxes. Hazel is polling at about 2 percent, far from enough support to win the race but enough to deprive either Kemp or Abrams of 50 percent of the total vote, which under Georgia law means they would face a runoff in December.

The debate, in Atlanta, allowed the candidates to ask questions of one another, and Kemp used the opportunity to ask Abrams whether any law enforcement organizations endorsed her. No statewide groups have, but individual law enforcement officers have backed the Democrat and have appeared in her television ads.

“Mr. Kemp, what you are attempting to do is continue the lie that you’ve told so many times, I think you believe it’s the truth,” Abrams said in response. “I support law enforcement and did so for 11 years, [and] worked closely with the Sheriffs Association.”

In his rebuttal, Kemp accused Abrams of supporting and being aligned with groups that support “defunding the police.”

“No sheriffs are endorsing her statewide because of her stances on wanting to defund the police, eliminate cash bail and serving on the boards of organizations like the Marguerite Casey Foundation that supports and gives grants to organizations that are promoting the defund-the-police movement,” Kemp said.

Both candidates agreed that it was a priority to stop street gang violence if elected governor, and that rising crime and gun violence were important issues facing Georgians.

Abrams criticized a bill passed under Kemp that makes it easier to conceal and carry a weapon, and she criticized a lack of background checks for private gun sales or those at gun shows. Kemp parried that most gun sales are to African Americans and women looking to defend themselves.

“You know why?” Kemp said. “Because the criminals are the only ones that do have the guns. You have local governments that are holding up concealed-weapons permits that are keeping law-abiding citizens from being able to simply use their Second Amendment right to protect themselves and their property and their families.”

Abrams responded by quoting President Ronald Reagan: that when it comes to gun sales, the government should “trust but verify.”

“Let’s be clear: I believe that we can protect the Second Amendment and protect second-graders at the exact same time,” Abrams said. “Yes, more people are buying guns. That’s because they think that’s the only way to protect themselves because guns have flooded our streets.”

Kemp and Abrams have met just once before on the debate stage in their first fight for the governor’s mansion in 2018. At that time they were both relatively unknown politicians: Kemp, then Georgia’s secretary of state, and Abrams, a state legislator making a first-ever run for statewide office.

The 2018 election saw record turnout, and Abrams earned the highest percentage of the vote of a Democrat running for governor in Georgia since 2002, which was the last time a Democrat had Georgia’s top office. Abrams lost to Kemp by fewer than 55,000 votes.

Since then, both candidates have become national figures.

Kemp became the target of former President Donald Trump’s resentment over losing Georgia’s Electoral College votes in 2020. For more than a year after the election, Trump bad-mouthed Kemp at rallies and in official statements, and even helped recruit former Sen. David Perdue to challenge the incumbent governor in the GOP primary earlier this year.

But Kemp has remained popular among Georgia Republicans by pursuing conservative policies. He signed a law to ban abortions so strict that it was enacted only after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade. It bars the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, and is sometimes referred to as a heartbeat bill.

Meanwhile, Kemp has gone out of his way to not say anything negative about Trump, and after the primary said he would welcome the former president’s endorsement if he changed his mind.

Since losing the 2018 race, Abrams has become a national champion of voting rights issues. She created the nonprofit Fair Fight Action and a sister PAC with the mission of fighting voter suppression and promoting progressive issues, and has continued to speak out against restrictive voting laws nationally.

Because of her political acumen, Abrams was on the short list of candidates to be Joe Biden’s running mate in 2020. She did not face a Democratic primary challenger this year.