Trailing in the polls, Stacey Evans repeatedly tried to tie her rival Stacey Abrams to the GOP in Tuesday’s first televised debate of Democratic candidates for governor.
Evans said Abrams “ripped that program to shreds” when she sided with Republicans on a 2011 measure to cut HOPE scholarship awards. And she claimed Abrams, who was then the Georgia House’s top Democrat, “used Republican talking points” to support a vote to shorten the state’s early-voting period.
Abrams swung back at the former state legislator, slamming her vote for a measure that restricts the destruction of some firearms confiscated by local police – a vote that briefly gave Evans a “B” rating by the National Rifle Association.
“I’ve never gotten a B rating, unlike my opponent,” Abrams said. “I’ve only gotten D’s and F’s – the only bad grade my parents were ever proud of.”
The debate, hosted by WRBL in Columbus, hit on familiar themes that have shaped the May 22 primary race. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released last week shows that Abrams leads Evans 33 percent to 15 percent among likely Democratic primary voters – with the remaining 52 percent still undecided.
Both candidates called for an expansion of Medicaid, both pledged to resist new restrictions on abortion and other socially conservative legislation, and both talked about how childhood poverty helped form their policies to encourage more economic mobility.
They also both touched on recent flash points in the race, including ethics complaints targeting both candidates that were filed last week.
Evans dismissed as “frivolous” allegations that a former aide formed a third-party organization to take in unlimited contributions to help her, and she said the only outside group trying to influence the race is “from San Francisco for my opponent.” It’s a reference to a California-based donor who pledged to spend $2.5 million to help Abrams.
And Abrams said she’d disclose any discrepancy involving a complaint questioning about $84,000 in reimbursements to her from her campaign committees over several years that lack details about how the money was spent. She said that money was spent rebuilding the House Democratic caucus.
But the discourse inevitably went back to two main themes that have helped define this race: HOPE and guns.
Evans, who credits the HOPE scholarship with her success in life, has centered her campaign on a pledge to reverse cuts to the program – while maintaining that Abrams betrayed the party by striking a compromise with Republicans on the overhaul.
“There was no deal worth cutting 97 percent of African-Americans students out of access for a full-tuition HOPE scholarship or causing 40,000 technical college students” to leave school, Evans said. “That is not hope.”
And Abrams has tried to make the case that Evans worked with her on the deal – she was involved in the negotiations, though she didn’t vote for the measure – and that the agreement helped stave off deeper cuts, such as a minimum SAT threshold for HOPE recipients.
“We couldn’t stand on the sidelines,” Abrams said. “Because of the work I did to protect the HOPE scholarship – with the help of Ms. Evans – the work that we did made certain that 100,000 students who couldn’t pass the SAT requirement had access to the scholarship.”
On Evans’ vote for the gun auction bill, she said she wanted to let “innocent gun owners have their property returned to them” and said she would support legislation that makes it clear that local police departments can destroy the weapons if they wish.
Abrams called that vote unconscionable.
“Law enforcement asked us not to put guns back on the streets,” she said, adding: “There’s no excuse for a yes vote.”