Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams met on the debate stage Monday night for the first time in their closely watched rematch as a record number of voters turned out for the first day of early voting.

The Republican incumbent touted his record and emphasized the strength of the state’s economy coming out of the pandemic. Abrams outlined her argument for ousting Kemp and why her plans would serve Georgians better. And Libertarian Shane Hazel, who helped force a runoff in one of the U.S. Senate races in 2020, played the role of disrupter as he laced into both candidates and parties.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Monday night’s debate was sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and held at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Kemp and Abrams will debate again on Oct. 30.

Guns

All three candidates for governor clashed on the issue of guns. 

The sitting governor, who supported and signed into law Georgian’s permitless carry measure, says his preferred solution to rein in gun violence is locking up the people who perpetuate it.

“I would just say that one way we can deal with gun violence is to take the bad people that are doing the shootings and lock them up,” he said.

Abrams often criticizes Kemp for the permitless carry bill, which she calls “criminal carry.”

“Street gangs did not shoot six Asian women, going into a gun store, getting a weapon and murdering women in less than an hour. Street gangs aren’t the reason people are getting shot in grocery stores and in parking lots and schools,” Abrams said.

“Street gangs are one part of the problem but we have a governor who has weakened gun laws across the state, flooded our streets with guns by letting dangerous people get access to those weapons.”

Kemp defended the change, which ended the need for a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

“We 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,” he said.

Hazel cautioned Abrams that her stance on guns would be her “undoing in Georgia.”

“Let’s be clear,” Abrams said. “I believe that we can protect the Second Amendment and protect second graders at the exact same time.”

Polls

Kemp has been leading Abrams in the polls. One recent poll showed her as much as 10 points behind him, but in that same survey, several of her positions – like opposition to the state’s new abortion restrictions and preferring to spend of the state’s surplus on services instead of cutting taxes – were popular with most of the respondents.

“The reason people are on my side is because I’m on the right side of history and on the right side of the issues,” she said. “But we also know the polls are a snapshot. The question is who are they taking a picture of?

“I do not believe that I’m behind. I believe that I’m making the case for Georgia, the case for electing me as the next governor.”

Reproductive access

Kemp was asked about recordings that appeared to capture him saying he was open to banning emergency contraceptives and the destruction of embryos.

He dismissed them as secret recordings taken at campaign events where he could not completely understand the conversation.

He was asked whether he would pursue any of the measures discussed on the recordings or any further restrictions to abortion access.

“That’s not my desire to do that,” he said before pivoting to inflation.

Kelly Loeffler

Kemp says he does not regret choosing Kelly Loeffler to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson. Loeffler lost to Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is also on the ballot this fall.

“It was a very challenging environment in 2020,” Kemp said. “Watching that election, I learned a lot of lessons. A lot of things that we hadn’t been doing with the ground game from a political perspective, we are now doing.” 

He says highlighting differences between candidates on the campaign is important, but so is being “for something.” That’s why Kemp is campaigning on a plan to issue another tax refund and provide one-time property tax grants.

Non-concession

Abrams was asked if she would accept the results of the election. She’s been criticized for not formally conceding in 2018 because of election processes that she would challenge unsuccessfully in court.

“We didn’t win every single claim, but we forced massive changes to the election law,” she said. 

She argued that even though she did not concede, she did acknowledge back in 2018 that Kemp had won the election. 

“I will always acknowledge the outcome of elections, but I will never deny access to every voter. Because that is the responsibility of every American, to defend the right to vote.”

Runoff

Hazel told reporters after the debate that he believes the governor’s race will go to a runoff, but don’t expect him to endorse either candidate if that happens. 

“It’s going to happen. It happened in 2020 when the polls ignored us, when the media ignored us, when the debates ignored us. It happened because I got 115,000 votes while spending zero dollars in a U.S. Senate campaign,” he said. “Are we going to send this to a runoff? Absolutely, we’re going to send it to a runoff.” 

The Libertarian complained at times during the debate for the “back and forth” between Kemp and Abrams and had his mic cut off at the end of the debate when he did not wrap up his closing comments.

But Hazel said afterward he thought the debate was fair and he appreciated being included. The Atlanta Press Club’s policy is to include all candidates who appear on the ballot. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...