Kemp faces attacks from 4 rivals in last debate of GOP primary

Early voting begins Monday in Georgia

The four Republicans running to replace Brian Kemp used the last debate of the primary season on Sunday night to launch a volley of attacks at the governor on everything from election integrity and crime to education and the pandemic.

All but one of the candidates, however, agreed to back whoever won the GOP nomination. Republicans, they said, must come together to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and aired by Georgia Public Broadcasting, the debate was far more subdued than the two which had come before it where Kemp and U.S. Sen. David Perdue had gone head-to-head. Those matchups quickly turned into verbal fisticuffs. This time, the three other candidates who have qualified for the race — Catherine Davis, Kandiss Taylor and Tom Williams — were also on the stage, which helped temper the animosity between the two men.

Kemp, who who holds a commanding lead in public opinion polls and fundraising as he seeks a second term, spent much of the hour deflecting criticism from all sides. The script seemed familiar at first, centering on the 2020 election and Kemp’s failure to do more to overturn the results in Georgia in favor of Republican Donald Trump.

Perdue and several other candidates continued on Sunday to press the falsehood that the election was stolen. Kemp pointed to new legislation that would allow the GBI to initiate election investigations and other measures he said his administration has taken to ensure election integrity.

“The reason everyone up here is looking in the rearview mirror is they don’t have a record to win in the future,” Kemp said.

Under questioning, Perdue, who has made election fraud a centerpiece of his campaign, pledged to back the primary winner.

“Of course, I will do that,” he said. “We cannot let Stacey Abrams and the woke left take over Georgia.”

Davis was the only candidate who refused to commit.

“I would never vote against my conscience so I will have to see who surfaces out of the race,” she said.

Kemp pivoted back to his first-term accomplishments whenever he could, saying he has delivered on his campaign promises. He touted record growth in economic development, state law enforcement efforts to combat rising crime rates and initiatives to strengthen rural Georgia.

Perdue laid out a case for eliminating the state income tax — a key part of his campaign — noting that nine other states do without one, including some that neighbor Georgia. But he didn’t detail how the state would make up the huge budget shortfall such a move would create. He also pointed to his record in the U.S. Senate helping to steer federal dollars to Georgia for disaster relief after Hurricane Michael and to deepen the Port in Savannah.

Asked about how to retain teachers and combat burnout in the classroom, Kemp talked about money his administration secured for teacher pay raises and mental health counselors in high schools.

“We’ve been addressing the things that are causing the stress with our teachers and we’re going to continue to do that,” he said.

Perdue keyed in on ideology.

“Right now the No. 1 thing we can do for our teachers and our parents and most of all our children is to get the woke mob out of our schools in Georgia,” Perdue said.

Taylor, an educator, blamed Kemp for not opening schools back up sooner after COVID-19. She also launched one of the more bizarre exchanges of the night, demanding that the governor explain why he hadn’t renounced the Chinese Communist Party.

“So what was your question again?” asked Kemp, looking bemused.

“We’re in the the Bible belt,” Taylor said. “We do love Jesus, guns and babies and we’re going to represent Jesus Christ, not communism.”

Kemp had allowed Perdue to get under his skin in two of the earlier debates. But Sunday night he stayed on an even keel — mostly.

Under questioning from Williams, Kemp argued that “to beat Stacey Abrams in November we need someone with a record and that’s what I have.”

“It needs to be a good record,” Williams interjected

“Excuse me,” Kemp shot back. “I didn’t interrupt you so if you’d let me finish.”

Early voting starts Monday for the May 24 primary.