In final campaign stretch, Georgia candidates clash on crime

Students attend a watch party to see the gubernatorial debate between Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, Libertarian challenger Shane Hazel and Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, at Emory University, Atlanta, on Oct. 17, 2022. (Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times)

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Students attend a watch party to see the gubernatorial debate between Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, Libertarian challenger Shane Hazel and Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, at Emory University, Atlanta, on Oct. 17, 2022. (Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times)

Georgia elections this year have been dominated by pocketbook struggles, rollbacks to abortion access and wavering confidence in democracy itself. But another familiar issue has elicited fireworks at recent matchups between candidates at the top of the ticket: crime.

In Savannah, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker flashed a police badge at the debate audience after Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock made targeted remarks that, unlike his opponent, he had “never pretended to be a police officer or threatened a shootout with the police.”

And during a heavily anticipated gubernatorial rematch last week in Atlanta, Gov. Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams sparred on crime repeatedly — first, over support for police, then again on gun access.

“Mr. Kemp, what you are attempting to do is continue the lie that you’ve told so many times I think you believe it’s the truth,” Abrams said after Kemp questioned her support among leaders in law enforcement.

The competing narratives

Those heated moments epitomize the competing narratives that voters face at the ballot box this fall. Republicans have painted Democrats as favorable toward “defunding police” and soft on crime, while Democrats have decried GOP support for looser gun restrictions and faulted Republicans for high rates of violent crime.

Crime has frequently topped Georgians’ concerns, surfacing in last year’s Atlanta mayoral election where crime rates, police morale and related threats of Buckhead secession dominated conversations on who would best lead the city. This year, Georgia voters cited cost of living as their most pressing concern, followed by threats to democracy and jobs/economy, according to a September AJC poll. Crime and guns were not far behind on the list of top issues.

Atlanta, like the U.S. at large, has seen increases in gun-related violence since 2020, with this summer marking the third straight year of increased homicides.

For Cumming resident Michael Toussaint, crime was a key factor in his choice for governor. He wants politicians to “address the underlying issues of crime ... without letting criminals out of jail” and believes Republicans accomplish this more effectively than Democrats.

“I trust Kemp more on crime because it’s almost guilty by association for Abrams,” said Toussaint, 54. “She’s a liberal, and I don’t see liberals doing anything on crime, so I’m afraid to put her in office ... based on what her counterparts are doing.”

That sentiment is largely thanks to concerted efforts by Republican candidates, who “tend to appear the strongest” on crime, said Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University political science professor.

“(Republicans) are more likely to offer a more hardcore statement about what they would do where they have the easy out of just saying more police,” Owens said. “A problem for Democrats is that they often have a multifaceted approach that on paper looks great, but in terms of trying to pitch it, the public isn’t always open — they want more simplistic statements, and this is true with regards to crime.”

Police messaging

Republican appeals on crime have centered on support for police — namely, with claims that the state’s Democrats want to “defund” police.

The Kemp campaign has repeatedly shared clips from Abrams interviews where she appears to express some support for ideas behind 2020 calls to “defund police” — comments the Abrams campaign has said were taken out of context. Her campaign has since aired an ad with law enforcement officials urging voters not to believe Kemp’s allegations.

“When Stacey Abrams was saying yes to defunding the police, ... we said no to that,” Kemp said at a recent campaign stop in Gwinnett County. “We are going to stand with our men and women in law enforcement to keep our community safe.”

Kemp has touted endorsements from sheriffs and law enforcement officers statewide and spoke last week at a “Salute to Georgia Sheriffs” event. He released a public safety plan last week that includes plans to boost law enforcement officers’ ranks via loan reimbursement.

Abrams, meanwhile, has repeatedly said she supports law enforcement and proposed raising the base salary for state officers to $50,000 over a two-year period, in addition to providing $25 million in direct grants to local law enforcement. She’s also called to implement mental health support for officers and revamp training to build trust with communities.

But for those such as Paige Gavalas of Appling, the damage from GOP allegations has been done. Gavalas, who supports police, said voting for anyone associated with reallocating their resources is out of the question.

“I don’t want to call 911 and not have a police department or fire department or an ambulance to come get you because some idiot defunded it,” said Gavalas, 56.

Messaging from Democrats during the 2020 racial justice protests was “a catastrophic disaster,” said Brian Robinson, a former spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal. For Robinson, crime remains a “net positive for Republicans” fueled by Democrats’ criticisms of law enforcement.

“Voters trust Republicans to take it more seriously,” Robinson said. “When Democratic politicians say we don’t need to enforce the law, that the criminals aren’t the bad guys, the police are, Democrats are doing the jobs for Republicans.”

In the Senate race, a similar dynamic has emerged: Warnock has advocated for investing in police training and appointing independent prosecutors to handle police-involved shootings. Meanwhile, Walker, like Kemp, has promoted support from law enforcement and said he will “fight to fully fund all of our public safety officials.”

But not everyone has bought into the idea that the GOP alone can curtail crime. Kenneth Smith, a 71-year-old Kingsland resident, said he is “very concerned” about crime in larger cities but backs Abrams. To Smith, defunding police “is not factually what she’s talking about.”

“Individuals will take it and spin things in a different manner,” he said. “But that’s not the meaning of what she says.”

Gun violence

In efforts to push back on Republican attacks on crime, Democrats have honed in on a related issue: gun violence.

Democrats have criticized spikes in violent crime during Kemp’s tenure but especially targeted legislation he signed into law in April that allows Georgians to carry concealed firearms without a state-issued permit. More than 60% of Georgians strongly or somewhat oppose that law, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Georgia News Collaborative poll this month.

“We have a governor who has weakened gun laws across the state, flooded our streets with our guns, letting dangerous people get access to those weapons,” Abrams said at this month’s Atlanta Press Club debate.

Many young voters such as Kashish Jain, a 23-year-old Atlanta consultant, see gun control as a crucial issue on the ballot. Jain participated in March For Our Lives-affiliated walkouts in high school and pointed to the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as to why she opposes the permitless carrying of handguns.

“That really scared me because if people can carry (guns) openly in public spaces ... it makes me supernervous just to go anywhere because I know that anything can happen,” Jain said. “I definitely don’t want anyone in office that is willing to take money from (the National Rifle Association).”

In response, Abrams plans to implement gun control measures that include repealing permitless and campus gun laws and supporting universal background checks. She’s recruited Michael Webb, the ex-husband of Xiaojie Tan, a victim in the 2021 spa shootings, to appear in a campaign ad where he says Kemp “put his loyalty to his gun lobby donors ahead of keeping Georgia safe.”

Kemp, meanwhile, has said that he plans to deter gun-related crimes by implementing heavier crackdowns on gangs via increasing penalties for recruiting minors and requiring judges to implement cash bail in certain scenarios.

“One way we deal with gun violence is to take the bad people that are doing the shootings and lock them up and not end cash bail,” Kemp said at the Atlanta Press Club Debate.

Democrats and Republicans have presented party-consistent, albeit starkly different, pictures of what’s driving crime in Georgia. But with voters already casting their ballots, Owens, the Emory professor, says it’s unlikely any changes in crime-related appeals will influence who they select at this point.

“People generally have made up their minds with regards to who they were going to vote for,” Owens said. “None of the messaging will matter at this point, other than trying to figure out a message to move people to the polls.”

Credit: WSAV screen grab

Credit: WSAV screen grab

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