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GOP gubernatorial rivals trade jabs at debate before runoff

Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle leveled relentless attacks against each other’s trustworthiness during Sunday’s final televised debate before the July 24 GOP runoff for governor.

In the Channel 2 Action News debate, Cagle defended himself against Kemp’s repeated references to a secretly made audio recording of the lieutenant governor that surfaced last month. Meanwhile, Kemp fended off accusations that his office mishandled confidential voter data and that he personally defaulted on a $500,000 loan.

With the runoff quickly approaching to determine the party’s gubernatorial nominee, the contest is neck-and-neck. An Atlanta Journal Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll of likely voters released Friday showed Kemp with a lead of 44 percent to Cagle’s 41 percent, with nearly 15 percent of voters undecided.

Kemp needled Cagle over the surreptitious recording that surfaced last month. In the audio, recorded by former Republican candidate Clay Tippins, Cagle admits to voting for an education bill he said was “bad” in order to appease donors and he describes the primary as a contest to see which candidate “could be the craziest.”

“Casey Cagle’s willing to put politics ahead of policy and he’s also willing to trade campaign contributions for votes,” Kemp said on Sunday. “You can’t believe anything this guy’s saying; it’s clear because of the tape.”

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Kemp made reference to the tape as frequently as possible during Sunday’s debate, a move that Cagle said was aimed at distracting from discussion of Kemp’s past record.

“Again, what we’re seeing is a candidate who has no vision for Georgia,” Cagle said. “All he has is a tape.”

Since the release of the recording, Kemp has called for criminal corruption charges to be brought against Cagle. The secretary of state has also ramped up attack ads in recent weeks slamming Cagle for his remarks in the recording.

In response, Cagle’s camp has called the suggestions of criminal charges laughable. His team has simultaneously called for law enforcement to investigate donations Kemp received from business leaders in industries that the Secretary of State’s Office is charged with regulating.

Cagle also used the debate to snipe at Kemp for an ongoing lawsuit that alleges Kemp defaulted on a $500,000 loan. The next hearing on the lawsuit will be held in a Gwinnett County courtroom July 25, the day after the GOP runoff.

“You never paid him back,” Cagle said. “What we see here is a pattern of not owning up.”

In response to a question about concerns that Georgia could be a target for Russian hackers attempting to influence elections, Kemp insisted that his office has ensured that voter information is safe. The lieutenant governor also slammed Kemp for releasing voter information to media outlets that was meant to remain confidential.

“It’s good to see that Pinocchio 2.0 has arrived at our second debate,” Kemp said. “We have never been hacked.”

Kemp also slammed Cagle for his use of state-funded flights. An investigation by the AJC earlier this month showed that Cagle has racked up over $250,000 in air travel costs, regularly flying between Atlanta and his home in Gainesville. Cagle defended the flights as a crucial part of his job.

“I’m not going to use a state aircraft to fly from Athens to Atlanta like the lieutenant governor used to commute from Atlanta to Gainesville,” Kemp said.

That refrain led to one of the sharpest comebacks of the debate, with Cagle invoking the public cost for credit monitoring services after his office accidentally released the confidential information of more than 6 million voters.

“The reality is, the $200,000 I’ve spent over 10 years that you’re referring to pales in comparison to the $1 million he had to spend to cover up his mistake of turning over the disk of all of our personal information,” said Cagle. “That’s $1 million because he couldn’t do his job.”

Early voting for the July 24 contest is already underway. The winner of the Republican nomination will face off against Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, who has been quickly restocking her campaign coffers to prepare for November.

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