Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams faced off in their second and final gubernatorial debate Sunday night, with a little more than a week to go before Election Day, amid record turnout.
They sparred over the state’s economy, abortion rights and, in a sign of the race’s national implications, whose party was to blame for the nation’s ills.
Kemp has led in most polls in the race, but Abrams — who came within a few thousand votes of pushing their 2018 race to a close — has a strong base of support and has succeeded in helping mobilize Democrats in her campaigns and those of other high-profile Democratic candidates, including President Joe Biden and Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in their 2020 campaigns.
There are 36 states voting for governor this year, 20 of which — including Georgia — are held by Republicans. The state legislature is controlled by Republicans, who, with Kemp’s signature, passed an abortion law three years ago that bans the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy, with some exceptions. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court, that law is in effect, and further restrictions may be on the way.
Abrams heavily criticized Kemp on the issue, noting his refusal to clearly indicate whether he would sign new legislation from anti-abortion justice Republicans. Kemp, in turn, repeatedly tried to turn the conversation back to the economy — specifically inflation and Georgia’s relative prosperity despite it — while trying to portray Abrams as a progressive radical who wants to defund the police. (Her position is considerably more complicated.)
Here are five takeaways from the second Georgia gubernatorial debate:
Is Georgia booming, as Kemp says, or approaching a catastrophic bust, as Abrams claimed?
The candidates painted vastly different portraits of the state’s economic situation, with Kemp pointing to higher wages and low unemployment — and blaming any pain on inflation, which he attributed to Democratic politics in Washington — while Abrams highlighted a low minimum wage and Kemps. refusal to accept Medicaid expansion funds under Obamacare as twin albatrosses carried by Georgia’s working class.
Kemp summarized his point of view at the beginning and end of the debate. His closing statement touted the “lowest unemployment rate in our state’s history,” “the most people ever to work in our state’s history,” and “economic opportunity regardless of your zip code or your neighborhood because we’ve been focused on strengthening rural areas in Georgia and many other things.”
Abrams saw something dramatically different.
“The financial pain people are feeling, it’s real,” Abrams said. “As governor, not only will I lower costs, I will put more money in the pockets of working Georgians, of middle-class Georgians, but what I will not do is give tax breaks to the wealthy and the powerful.”
Kemp argued that the state’s one-time billion-dollar tax credit this year was only possible because of his maneuvering during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when he was among the first to reopen businesses, pointing to a recent gas. tax holiday as emblematic of his work to make life more affordable for middle-class voters.
Where that failed, he tried to shift the blame north — to the White House.
“The problem (Georgians face) is that (wages) are not rising fast enough to keep up with Joe Biden’s inflation,” Kemp responded when Abrams challenged his portrayal of the state’s economic situation.
In a sense, the abortion debate has stalled in Georgia. The state has a law on the books, passed three years ago, that bans the procedure after about six weeks. And with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, it has now come into effect.
But Abrams and the debate moderators had another question for Kemp: with no federal limits in place, would the Republican, if re-elected, sign further restrictions into law?
Kemp didn’t give a clear yes or no answer, saying he didn’t want to prejudge “any specific piece of legislation without actually seeing exactly what it does,” before adding: “It’s not my desire to go back, to move the needle further.”
“He didn’t say he wouldn’t,” Abrams replied — underscoring the uncertainty that lingers around the issue, which, as the moderators noted, remains a divisive one in the state, where more than half of respondents in a recent survey supports abortion rights.
Abrams framed his argument around privacy and women’s health concerns, describing abortion as “a medical decision,” one that should only be made by “a doctor and a woman, not a politician.”
In a back-and-forth over boundaries and exceptions, Kemp described his own wife’s miscarriage and the difficulties they encountered in having children (he now has three daughters).
“It’s a tragic, traumatic situation,” he said of abortions, pushing back against Abrams’ warning that the state, under GOP control, could end up investigating women they suspect may have received an abortion. Kemp denied that women would ever be penalized for undergoing the procedure.
Abrams, who tried to tie the issue to broader concerns about access to health care in the state, noted that under current state law, the ban goes into effect “before most women know they’re pregnant” — a particularly troubling fact given the declining number of OB-GYNs in Georgia.
They are not running for governor, but they are top of mind for many in Georgia.
For Democrats, it is GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker, who has become a symbol of what his critics describe as Republican hypocrisy on issues such as abortion, support for law enforcement and business acumen.
On the Republican side, President Joe Biden is the go-to boogeyman on most economic issues, with GOP candidates and their surrogates relentlessly trying to tie Democratic nominees to the president and the skyrocketing inflation that has occurred during his time in office.
“Americans are hurting right now because of a disastrous political agenda by Joe Biden and the Democrats who have complete control of Washington DC,” Kemp said as his economic record was attacked.
Abrams, in turn, called out Kemp’s support for Walker during their abortion fight.
“(Kemp) refuses to defend us, and yet he defended Herschel Walker, saying he didn’t want to be involved in his running mate’s personal life, but he doesn’t mind getting involved in women’s personal medical choices in Georgia, Abrams said.
Walker, who has repeatedly said in the past that he favors a total abortion ban with no exceptions, faces allegations from two women who say he encouraged them to get abortions. Walker has denied their claims.
During their first debate, Abrams said Kemp shouldn’t get too much credit for following the law and not giving in to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss in Georgia.
There was less talk of two years ago this time — and almost no mention of Trump all night — but voting rights, particularly a new law known as SB 202, came under heavy scrutiny from Abrams.
“The right to vote is sacred to me. … It is an abomination, SB 202, that has allowed racist, white supremacists to challenge the legal authority of citizens to vote,” she said.
In response to news of record turnout, Abrams argued that “the fact that people are voting is in spite of SB 202, not because of it.”
Kemp, as he did in their first debate, accused Abrams of trying to “manipulate and intimidate people at home” and defended the state as a place where it’s “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
When asked, both candidates said they would accept the results of the November election, regardless of the outcome — a question that is especially notable because it has become a staple of campaign debates around the country in the wake of the 2020 election.
The crime debate, both nationally and in statewide races, tends to follow similar tracks.
Republicans blame Democrats for being soft on criminals and tough on police, often invoking the short-lived movement to “defund the police” against their opponents. Democrats push back and tout their support for law enforcement before swinging to GOP opposition to new gun restrictions.
And that’s how it went in Georgia on Sunday night.
“Go check the record, because Ms. Abrams on CNN was asked the question, would she defund the police? And she said, yes, we have to reallocate resources. That means defund the police,” Kemp said.
Abrams denied the claim, saying Kemp “lied again” about her record — which is actually more nuanced — before turning to the Republican’s record on loosening gun restrictions.
“Guns are the number one killer of our children. We have the ninth highest gun violence rate in the country. Family violence with guns is up 18% under this governor and his response was to weaken gun laws in the state of Georgia,” Abrams said.
In fact, both Abrams and Kemp have gone out of their way during this campaign to highlight their support for law enforcement. Abrams has proposed $25 million in state grants to local agencies that would go toward raising the salaries of police officers, while Kemp repeatedly touts the support of top law enforcement officials, the vast majority of whom have backed his campaign for re-term.
This story has been updated with additional information.