In final debate, Kemp won’t say whether he’d sign new abortion limits

Gov. Brian Kemp wouldn’t say at Sunday’s Channel 2 Action News debate whether he would sign new abortion limits into law if he’s elected to a second term, weeks after he said at a previous showdown that he “would not” support going beyond restrictions he backed in 2019.

Stacey Abrams, his Democratic opponent, faced demands from the Republican to take a position on whether she endorsed any abortion restrictions after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. She said she has long backed banning abortions after the point of fetal “viability.”

And as the hourlong debate shifted to criminal justice, Abrams bristled at Kemp’s boast of endorsements from local law enforcement officials, saying she doesn’t have the blessing of “107 sheriffs who want to be able to take Black people off the streets” before quickly adding that not every sheriff “wants that.”

Both also clashed over voting rights, with Abrams accusing the Republican of championing efforts to restrict access to the ballot box. Kemp dismissed the barb in a back-and-forth that evoked the emotional divide over election policy that dominated their 2018 race.

The exchanges were among the most consequential of the final debate of a heated rematch that has featured dramatically different visions for the state’s economy, criminal justice system, health care and almost every other major policy.

Both candidates tried to maximize perhaps the last large-scale platform to make their closing pitches to voters with a final week of early voting kicking off Monday, followed by the Nov. 8 election. More than 1.6 million Georgians have already cast ballots, setting a record midterm pace.

Trailing Kemp in most polls, Abrams used the showdown to pummel a Republican she said has “refused to do right by our people” by supporting restrictions that ban most abortions as soon as six weeks of pregnancy.

And Kemp tried to pivot to the economy to trumpet his fiscal record and assail “40-year high Joe Biden inflation.” He peppered his remarks with reminders that he lifted economic restrictions in the opening weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re one new COVID variant away from Ms. Abrams wanting to lock our state down,” Kemp said, adding: “I’ve been focused on the people of the state, making sure they could get back to work and their child was in the classroom.”

Abortion clash

With polls showing most Georgians oppose the newly enacted abortion restrictions, Abrams has warned Republicans will seek new limits under four more years with Kemp as governor.

Kemp said at an Atlanta Press Club debate earlier this month that he wouldn’t support new restrictions, including on fertility treatments or birth control. But on Sunday he was asked specifically whether he would sign additional limits into law if they’re passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature.

“I’m not going to say yes or no to any specific piece of legislation,” when pressed by Richard Elliot, a Channel 2 reporter serving as a panelist. He added that he won’t pursue any new restrictions as part of his agenda, but “we’ll look at those when the time comes.”

“It’s not my desire to move the needle any further on this issue,” Kemp said. “We’ve been dealing with this issue for three years. That’s where the General Assembly was. I personally don’t see a need to go back, but when you’re governor, you have to deal with all kind of legislative issues that are out there.”

Abrams noted Kemp “did not say he wouldn’t” revisit the law. And she tried to tie Kemp to Republican Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, who is accused by two ex-girlfriends of pressuring them to get abortions despite his opposition to the procedure. Walker has denied their claims.

“He refuses to protect us. He refuses to defend us,” Abrams said of Kemp. “And yet he defended Herschel Walker, saying that he didn’t want to be involved in the personal life of his running mate.”

In a deeply personal note, Kemp emphasized that he, too, understood the personal toll of a troubled pregnancy. He said his wife Marty suffered a “tragic, traumatic” miscarriage of what had been twins during her pregnancy with their oldest daughter.

Kemp also tried to put Abrams on the defensive, accusing the Democrat of repeatedly changing her stance on whether she would back any restrictions on abortion.

After initially refusing to outline her position, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June that she would set that mark when a “physician determines the fetus is viable outside of the body, except in the case of protecting the woman’s life or health.” At the debate, Abrams tried to clarify her stance.

It’s a “decision that should be made between a doctor and a woman — as a medical choice,” she said, adding: “It is willful ignorance or misleading lies that change what I’ve said. But what I’ve also always said is that there should not be arbitrary timelines set by men who do not understand biology.”

Contrasting approaches

The rivals entered the debate with different strategies.

With most polls giving him significant leads, Kemp aimed to avoid any gaffes that could energize Democrats while challenging Abrams on economic issues popular with swing voters — a constituency he largely bypassed in 2018 in favor of a rural-powered strategy.

Abrams, meanwhile, hoped to energize her base amid worries from senior Democrats about voter apathy. Former President Barack Obama urged Georgia Democrats to stay engaged, and Abrams has targeted her party’s most faithful voters with promises of “generational” change.

Abrams, too, has acknowledged the economy is the most important issue to many Georgians, and she blamed Kemp’s support for expansive gun policies and anti-abortion limits for business backlash, including a decision to scrap the Music Midtown festival and threats to Georgia’s booming film industry.

“We know that this is a governor who has refused to do right by our people,” Abrams said.

Kemp defended his decision to sign a measure that allows Georgians to carry concealed handguns without first getting a license from the state. He noted that Atlanta is now a frontrunner to land the Democratic National Convention in 2024 despite Abrams’ bleak assessment of the state’s economic reputation.

“If things are so bad,” he asked, “why would that be the case?”

The two also sparred over crime, an issue that Republicans have emphasized in Georgia and across the nation to rally voters. Kemp noted that Abrams pushed to eliminate cash bail in 2018 and accused her of supporting the “defund the police” movement, something she has repeatedly called a “lie.”

“Men and women in law enforcement know who is going to be with them, who has had their back and will continue to have their back,” the governor said, highlighting support from 107 of the state’s sheriffs, including several Democrats.

Abrams responded that she was no member of the “good ol’ boys club,” so she isn’t expecting institutional support from law enforcement leaders.

“No, I don’t have 107 sheriffs who want to be able to take Black people off the streets, who want to be able to go without accountability,” she said. “I don’t think every sheriff wants that, but I do know that we need a governor who believes in both defending law enforcement but also defending the people of Georgia.”

A stark contrast

As they’ve both said on the campaign trail, the rivals committed to support the results of the election — an opportunity Kemp used to invoke Abrams’ refusal to concede in 2018 and his support for Senate Bill 202, a GOP-approved rewrite of election laws.

“In Georgia it’s easy to vote and hard to cheat, and I’m committed to keeping it that way,” Kemp said. “And I’m the one that’s been truthful and honest about this.”

Abrams shot back by accusing Kemp of embracing restrictive voting policies while he served as secretary of state for nearly a decade — and she called the new election rules an “abomination” designed to help Republicans.

Though the 2021 law guaranteed three weeks of in-person early voting and preserved no-excuse absentee voting, it also limited the usage of ballot drop boxes and ended paperless online ballot requests by requiring voters to put a handwritten signature on their application.

“It is a terrible law that has already sent people home from the polls. The fact that people are voting is in spite of SB 202, not because of it. It was never about making sure that we had fair elections in Georgia,” she said. “It was about gaming the election.”

Sunday’s debate was very different from their showdown earlier this month that was hosted by the Atlanta Press Club. Without Libertarian Shane Hazel on the stage to deflect attention, the two candidates traded blows throughout the affair.

The setting also provided another reminder of their 2018 clash. Four years ago, a final debate between the two candidates was canceled after Kemp pulled out to instead campaign with then-President Donald Trump.

In this contest, Trump has disavowed Kemp and even suggested he’d rather see Abrams as governor than the incumbent he once endorsed. As a sign of his diminished role, the former president’s name didn’t come up during the hourlong affair.