The punches came fast and furious as Gov. Brian Kemp and his Republican challenger, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, met in the first debate of the Georgia gubernatorial race Sunday night.
Lagging in the polls, Perdue appealed to his base, hammering away at the 2020 election, which he called “rigged and stolen” — despite no evidence to back that claim. Perdue, who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, blamed Kemp for handing control of Washington to Democrats.
“The only reason I’m not in the United States Senate is because you caved in and gave the elections to Stacey (Abrams) and the liberal Democrats in 2020,” Perdue said.
Kemp fired back that Perdue was looking for a scapegoat for his own loss in the January 2021 runoff to Democrat Jon Ossoff, which helped shift control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats.
“Weak leaders blame everybody else for their own loss instead of themselves,” Kemp said.
Kemp earned Trump’s wrath after he refused to intervene and overturn Georgia’s election results. He said Sunday he followed the law and the state constitution.
“You’re the top cop in this state,” Perdue shot back. “It’s your responsibility to make sure we investigate voter fraud.”
Kemp bridled at that.
“I was secretary of state for eight years and I don’t need to be lectured by someone who’s lost his last election about what the voting laws are in our state,” Kemp said.
The bitter faceoff between the onetime allies comes a month before the Republican primary. And it sometimes took on the tone of a family feud, Kemp recalling when they campaigned together.
“When we were riding on the bus and I was campaigning for you in the runoff did you ever ask me about having a special session?” a visibly irritated Kemp asked.
“Of course I did,” Perdue replied
“No, you did not,” Kemp insisted.
Asked if he was dividing the GOP by launching a primary challenge to Kemp, Perdue said the party “was already divided.”
“The only reason I am running for governor is to try to save our state,” Perdue said. “The woke left has entrenched themselves here.”
Kemp countered that he beat Democrat Stacey Abrams once and can do it again.
“I want to promise you this tonight if you will nominate me as your Republican nominee, I will work every single day … to make sure that Stacey Abrams is never your governor, or your next president.”
One of the sharpest disagreements of the night came over the issue of proposed cityhood for Buckhead.
“I personally support them seceding from the city of Atlanta,” Perdue said.
Kemp hedged saying he was “keeping his powder dry” and letting the debate play out.
But he argued that he has invested heavily in crime prevention — a factor in the cityhood push — saying that while Perdue has been talking about the problem, “I’ve been doing something about it.”
As they wrapped up, Perdue called Kemp a “weak governor” who had presided over a high crime rates, the indoctrination of schoolchildren and a stolen election.
Kemp countered that Perdue was attacking his record because he didn’t have one of his own, which was why he lost his Senate reelection bid.
Sunday marked a return to the debate stage for Perdue, who famously skipped a debate with Ossoff. Kemp also missed his second and final debate against Abrams in 2018 after Trump scheduled a campaign rally for the same night.
Sunday night’s match-up off kicks off a week of debates between Kemp and Perdue in advance of the May 24 Republican primary. Republicans Catherine Davis, Kandiss Taylor and Tom Williams have also qualified in the race for governor but were not invited to the WSB debate because they had not reached the required threshold in Georgia polls that was set for the debate.
The next debate will be held Thursday on WTOC in Savannah followed by an Atlanta Press Club debate May 1 to be aired by Georgia Public Broadcasting.
If no candidate wins more 50 percent of the vote the contest will go to a runoff June 21. The winner will face Abrams in the November general election.