In a rematch four years in the making, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams shared a stage Tuesday night and presented starkly different views of Georgia’s future if they were to be elected.

Education and crime dominated discussions during the hourlong Atlanta Press Club debate, which also featured Libertarian Shane Hazel, but candidates traded jabs over issues like voting rights and gun control.

Polls have consistently shown Kemp with a slight edge over Abrams as he touts his record during his time in office and the strength of Georgia’s economy despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m so optimistic about the future of our state,” Kemp said. “The lowest unemployment rate in the history of the state, the most people working and economic opportunity in all parts of our state, no matter your ZIP code or neighborhood.”

Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018 by about 55,000 votes, has pushed back on the campaign trail that Kemp’s vision of a prosperous Georgia is leaving people behind.

“This is a governor who for the last four years has beat his chest but delivered very little for most Georgians,” she said. “He has weakened gun laws and flooded our streets, he has weakened our privacy rights and women’s rights … the most dangerous thing facing Georgia is four more years of Brian Kemp.”

Under Kemp’s leadership, Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature has passed a number of laws that polling suggests most voters oppose — such as loosening gun restrictions and an abortion law that virtually outlaws the procedure after about six weeks into pregnancy.

Kemp said during the debate he would not pursue further restrictions on abortion or birth control, after secretly recorded audio emerged where the governor would not directly rule out any changes. His answer was the first time during his reelection bid he directly addressed questions about further crackdown on abortion-related care.

Voters more closely align with Abrams’ stances on these issues, although polls of likely voters show her trailing by several points. The Democrat argues that the surveys fail to capture a crucial part of the electorate: unengaged voters and newly registered voters, two groups that her campaign is heavily targeting this election.

“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 that polls are a snapshot. The question is also who are they taking a picture of.”

A recent poll of likely voters conducted by the University of Georgia on behalf of GPB News and the Georgia News Collaborative showed a large number of undecided voters among some of her strongest constituencies, such as women and Black Georgians, that are likely to consolidate support behind her when votes are counted.

The race could head to a Dec. 6 runoff if neither Kemp nor Abrams clears the majority threshold needed to win outright, and if Hazel the Libertarian garners enough support. During much of the debate, Hazel interrupted Abrams, Kemp and the moderator and urged voters to send the race to a runoff.

Education has been one of the signature issues for both Kemp and Abrams, and the pair answered several questions about how they would help students and teachers.

The governor has successfully pushed a $5,000 pay raise for teachers and controversial legislation like a new law aimed at tamping down on “divisive concepts” and a “parent’s bill of rights.” He recently announced new spending initiatives to tackle pandemic-related learning loss if reelected.

Abrams said Georgia’s record-setting budget surplus should be used to invest even more into education, including a proposal that would boost the starting salary for teachers to $50,000 and increase average teacher pay to about $75,000.

“We can make certain that we are increasing access to the pipeline, because teachers aren’t in the pipeline because they can’t make enough money to take care of themselves and their families,” she said. “And that is why under this governor, we have a 67% retention rate. Any other CEO who lost more than 30% of their workforce would be fired.”

Kemp and Abrams battled over another hot button topic: the startling rates of violent crime across the state. The incumbent Republican accused his Democrat opponent of wanting to defund law enforcement while touting his own public safety initiatives such as a crackdown on street gang activity.

Abrams has released a public safety platform that includes pay increases for law enforcement, repealing recent relaxed gun restrictions and more funding for accountability courts, and she blamed Kemp for rising crime statistics.

“[Kemp] promised to keep us safe, but crime has gone up,” Abrams said. “He promised to protect us, but he attacked our freedoms.”

After their first meeting in 2018, the rematch between Kemp and Abrams is fueled by a bitter rivalry — and mountains of cash. 

The two were already top fundraisers before, but new campaign finance laws allowing nominees for top offices to raise unlimited funds through so-called “leadership committees” have allowed enormous sums to pour in.

As of September, Abrams reported raising more than $85 million between her campaign and the One Georgia committee, while Kemp has hauled in more than $60 million — dwarfing the roughly $48 million the two collectively spent in 2018.

Early voting is now underway in Georgia, where more than 100,000 people voted in person Monday by 4:15 p.m., according to the Secretary of State’s office, shattering the previous first day record of 72,000 set in 2018.

This story comes to Reporter Newspapers / Atlanta Intown through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Stephen Fowler | GPB

Stephen Fowler is an award-winning reporter and photographer for GPB News covering state and local politics.