A vast gulf between Abrams and Kemp will shape Georgia’s future

Credit: Ben Gray/AP

Credit: Ben Gray/AP

One thing is for certain when Georgians decide the race for governor on Tuesday: The policy divides between Stacey Abrams and Gov. Brian Kemp on the issues that define the midterm election couldn’t be much wider.

Those differences have come into sharper detail over months of campaigning and a pair of October debates that put their differing visions of Georgia on full display for voters who are already familiar with the two rivals after their 2018 clash ended with Kemp’s narrow victory.

This campaign, the Republican has focused far more on what he’s done during a first term as governor than what he plans to accomplish with four more years in office. Abrams has outlined dozens of policy proposals, including many that echo her 2018 platform.

Neill Herring, a longtime Capitol lobbyist and student of Georgia politics, struggled to find any modern example of such an ocean of differences between major-party candidates for governor. He also labored to find any instances where they overlapped, beyond their vows to abide by the results of the November election.

“At least they both agree they’re running for the same office,” Herring quipped. “Beyond that, the vastness of their disagreements cast any possible area where they agree with each other into a shadow.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Abrams wants to repeal the state’s newly enacted abortion restrictions; Kemp wants to maintain them and wouldn’t rule out supporting new limits on the procedure.

The Democratic challenger promises to roll back permissive gun policies that she blames for higher crime; the Republican incumbent said broader access to firearms will keep more law-abiding Georgians safe.

Abrams says the state should have expanded the Medicaid program a decade ago to add needy Georgians to the rolls; Kemp sees the program as too expensive and inflexible and instead favors a more limited expansion.

The challenger has assailed Georgia’s election overhaul as “suppressive” because it imposes new limits on ballot drop boxes and requires voters to provide ID for absentee ballots. The governor said record midterm turnout so far proves the law makes it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Dueling philosophies

That’s just the start of differences that extend to policies on criminal justice, the environment, education and immigration. In the closing days of the race, Abrams has even brought up foreign policy arguments, proposing to close a “critical loophole” involving Chinese technology.

But if there’s an underlying theme to their 2022 clash, it’s how they would deploy the state’s record $6.6. billion surplus, a record amount that’s buoyed by a surge of Democratic-backed federal spending that Kemp and other state Republicans largely opposed.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Kemp proposes spending $2 billion on tax rebates that could save many Georgia families as much as $1,000 a year while preserving much of the rest in the state’s rainy day fund despite pressure from even fellow Republicans to finance new initiatives.

He cautions that deploying the funds to a spree of projects would force state legislators to raise taxes later this decade to sustain them. He frames his restrained fiscal philosophy as a counter to high inflation and a wobbly economy that he said has been worsened by President Joe Biden’s agenda.

“There’s a disaster in Washington right now that’s hitting Middle America in the pocketbook and hurting hardworking Georgians, and that’s what I’m going to be focused on,” Kemp said at a stop in northeast Georgia.

“Everything that Stacey Abrams is doing is trying to distract from what her record was to what she’s seen now in polling,” he said. “We’re just going to stay focused on what Georgians need.”

Credit: Ben Gray / AP

Credit: Ben Gray / AP

Abrams, by contrast, sees the record surplus as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finance programs that include raising annual teacher pay to a floor of $50,000, providing tuition-free technical college, giving salary increases for key law enforcement officers and kick-starting the long-sought Democratic goal of underwriting Medicaid expansion.

The cash windfall, she told supporters in Marietta recently, is “like we struck the Powerball and I’m asking each of you to put five on it because together we can spend the money on the people of Georgia.”

“We need a governor who knows it’s not enough to say we’ve got a problem,” she said. “We’ve got to have a governor willing to invest in the answer. And we’ve got 6.6 billion ways to invest in the state of Georgia.”


Where Abrams and Kemp stand on the issues

ABORTION

Kemp: After campaigning on a promise to sign the “toughest abortion laws in the country,” Kemp championed a 2019 measure that would ban most abortions once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, typically about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant.

The law, which narrowly passed the GOP-controlled Legislature, took effect this year shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, which had guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion for nearly 50 years.

Kemp said he was “overjoyed” by the decision but has not emphasized it on the campaign trail. He said he doesn’t personally support additional abortion limits, but he hasn’t specifically ruled out signing new restrictions if the Legislature approves them.

Abrams: Abrams opposes GOP efforts to restrict abortion and has taken steps to channel the fury over the court’s decision into electoral energy.

She vowed to repeal the law if elected — though she’d first have to persuade GOP legislators to support the idea — and has blasted Kemp for his “extreme” position on the issue. She has also warned that Kemp will inevitably endorse new abortion limits if he’s elected to a second term.

“It took a man to break the promise of Georgia, and it’s going to take a woman to make it right,” she says at campaign stops.

BUDGET AND TAXES:

Kemp: The governor says that big-ticket spending items will inevitably drain the state’s budget, requiring political leaders to raise taxes to sustain those programs. He’s proposed refunding about $2 billion of the state’s record $6.6 billion surplus to taxpayers through a package of income tax rebates and the resurrection of a property tax break that lapsed during the Great Recession.

The Republican also touts a law he signed that will drop the state’s income tax rate from 5.75% to 4.99% by the end of the decade. He didn’t fulfil a core promise from his 2018 bid: a pledge to cap state spending, which has reached record heights.

Abrams: With the state’s coffers overflowing in surplus funds, Abrams plans to use the cash to pursue “generational” changes. That includes funding to give raises to teachers and law enforcement officers, finance an expansion of Medicaid, fund tuition-free technical college and provide a roughly $1 billion refund to many Georgians. She pledges to sustain the spending without raising taxes.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE:

Kemp: In a second term, the governor would continue a criminal justice policy that has helped define his first. He announced proposals to crack down on gang violence and create a loan program to boost the ranks of law enforcement officers and medical examiners.

As part of a broader initiative to target human trafficking, Kemp would double fines for businesses that violate state law requiring them to post information aimed at potential victims of the crime. That yearslong effort is led by Kemp’s wife, Marty Kemp.

Abrams: Under Abrams’ public safety plan, the base salary for corrections officers, community supervision officials and Georgia State Patrol troopers would rise to $50,000 over a two-year period. She also calls for a revamp of police training to address an “erosion of trust” and a new state database designed to prevent troubled officers from landing new jobs. She’s assailed Kemp-backed tough-on-crime proposals as discriminatory.

EDUCATION

Kemp: A core promise of Kemp’s 2018 campaign involved a $5,000 teacher pay raise, a mark he achieved earlier this year. His second-term platform includes more modest proposals, including a pledge to spend $65 million to address “learning loss” during the coronavirus pandemic, along with other initiatives to recruit more counselors and help school staffers become full-fledged teachers.

Abrams: Abrams has pledged another pay bump for teachers, with a $1.65 billion plan to hike the minimum salary of Georgia public school teachers to $50,000 a year, which would lift their pay by $11,000 annually over four years. She also wants to revamp the school funding formula and fight private school voucher programs.

ENVIRONMENT

Kemp: Under Kemp and his predecessors, Georgia has established long-term plans to help coastal counties adapt to rising sea levels but resisted more ambitious efforts taken by other states. Kemp said he doesn’t believe “government red tape is the answer” to climate change and condemned a newly enacted federal climate change and tax measure as an exercise in overspending.

Abrams: Highlighting the threat of climate change, Abrams said she’ll adopt a first-of-its-kind statewide environmental plan that invests in “hazard mitigation and community resilience” to blunt the impact of rising temperatures. She also proposes creating new response plans for coastal Georgia to prepare for extreme weather.

Like other Democrats, she’s embraced the new federal climate change law aimed at spurring green energy initiatives and has slammed Kemp for being “absolutely silent” on plans to curb warmer temperatures.

GAMBLING

Kemp: Kemp has said he opposes legalizing casino gambling but that he wouldn’t take action to stop legislators from seeking a constitutional amendment that voters would have to approve. His campaign said he would work with legislative leaders on a measure to allow sports betting in 2023 — something he opposed in his first run.

Abrams: In a departure from her last campaign for governor, Abrams promised to legalize casino gambling and sports betting to expand higher education scholarships. Under her plan, the additional revenue would allow students with “C” averages to tap into the HOPE scholarship and finance a new needs-based scholarship.

GUNS

Kemp: After a campaign in 2018 that drew national attention for a provocative shotgun ad, Kemp this year signed legislation that allows Georgians to carry concealed handguns without first getting a license from the state. The measure was the most significant state firearms legislation since a 2014 gun rights expansion, and Kemp said it helps law-abiding Georgians protect themselves.

Abrams: Abrams and other Democrats have vowed to repeal the state’s newly enacted permissive gun laws. She has also warned that Georgia’s firearms rules threaten to undercut the state’s pro-business reputation, and she often points to the cancellation of the Music Midtown festival, a decision that was linked to the state’s gun policies. She has also tied Georgia’s rollback of firearm restrictions to higher crime rates.

HEALTH CARE

Kemp: The governor has long echoed other Georgia Republicans in opposing a full-scale Medicaid expansion, saying the program would be too costly in the long run and too inflexible for patients. He’s instead pursued a more limited, “fiscally conservative” initiative tied to work and academic requirements. A federal judge this year ruled that his program can move forward despite the White House’s objections.

Abrams: As she did in 2018, Abrams has made a promise to expand Medicaid a cornerstone of her campaign for governor. She has connected questions about economic equality, rural development and even infrastructure to her plan to add hundreds of thousands of Georgians to the Medicaid rolls. She sharpened her calls after Atlanta Medical Center, one of the city’s core safety-net hospitals, announced it would close this month.

IMMIGRATION

Kemp: The Republican has backed off the immigration rhetoric that helped him win the GOP nomination in 2018, which included an ad in which he vowed to “round up criminal illegals” in his own pickup truck and pledged to “track and immediately deport” unauthorized immigrants with criminal records. He didn’t fulfill those promises and hasn’t unveiled specific proposals for a second term, though he has railed against federal immigration policies.

Abrams: Her platform includes a promise to “defend the rights” of immigrants who have been granted a temporary reprieve from deportation to get an education in Georgia’s public colleges and universities. She condemns “cruel and immoral” federal policies that separated migrant children from their parents. And she backs “fair, just and comprehensive” measures to create a pathway to citizenship.

RURAL DEVELOPMENT

Kemp: With his political base in rural Georgia, Kemp has pushed to prioritize economic development in the state’s agricultural heartland with a “rural strike team” tasked with spurring more jobs and investment. He’s also touted efforts to expand rural broadband and bring two multibillion-dollar auto plants to underserved areas.

Abrams: Abrams has devoted her campaign’s attention to rural Georgia as well, highlighting the need for more health care access and better infrastructure. She plans to shift more state and federal funds to rural development programs and boost grants designed to recruit attorneys and physicians to sparsely populated areas.

VOTING RIGHTS

Kemp: Perhaps the biggest flashpoint in the 2018 election, a divide over voting rights policy remains a key factor in this year’s contest. The Republican supported a rewrite of election rules in 2021 that limits drop boxes, requires different forms of ID for absentee voting and bans outside groups from handing out food and drinks to voters waiting in line. It also gives the Republican-controlled Legislature greater control over elections, requires a second Saturday of early voting in general elections, shortens early voting before runoffs and mandates quicker vote-counting.

Abrams: Abrams and her allies framed the legislation as a restrictive measure designed to curb increases in Democratic voters. She said this year’s surge in early voting turnout doesn’t mean the state’s voting rules aren’t systemically flawed. She backs rules to allow eligible Georgians to register to vote until Election Day and create more mobile voting precincts. And she opposes the drawing of state and federal maps with gerrymandered districts.