Last night’s Georgia governor’s debate between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp featured the expected fireworks over accusations of voter suppression by the Republican candidate and the recently uncovered photo of the Democratic contender burning the state flag during her college days.
But the debate was dominated perhaps more so by the competing visions of the present and future put forward by the starkly contrasting candidates. It’s one of the two most closely watched governor’s contests in the country, along with Florida, with racial tensions at the forefront of both. Polls show a deadlocked race.
Abrams, the Democrat, repeatedly returned to her central plan for the state, which starts with Medicaid expansion. But she hammered away at her emphasis that this idea would help rural Georgians most of all, in contrast to the traditional Republican argument that expanding Medicaid only helps the urban poor.
The rural-versus-urban divide has dominated Georgia politics for decades, and has a strong racial undertone. Until the ’60s, the state’s elections were heavily tilted in favor of rural counties where white Georgians held power and often prevented people of color from voting or made it extremely difficult, at the expense of more heavily populated and racially diverse urban areas like Atlanta.
But Abrams knows she will get plenty of votes from the urban areas. The question has been how she will win over voters in the suburbs and rural portions of Georgia. She has rejected the idea of watering down her liberalism. But on Tuesday night, there was no other theme she repeated more often than her desire to help rural Georgia, extending an open hand to the most conservative part of the state.
Abrams said that expanding Medicaid would create 56,000 jobs in the state and that 60 percent of those jobs would be outside the metro Atlanta area. But more fundamentally, she argued that expanding Medicaid would provide more stability for rural areas by keeping population in place and providing a foundation for future economic growth.
“There is no way to bring companies back to communities without stabilizing those communities first,” Abrams said. Medicaid expansion “will provide access to health care, and it will help stabilize those economies.”
Whether or not rural conservatives vote for Abrams, the more important audience for her rural Georgia message might be moderate suburban whites who worry that Abrams is too left-wing and will hurt the state’s economy.
Kemp’s main goal of the night was to try to frighten these same suburban and exurban voters into running away from Abrams. “This should scare you to death,” he said at one point about her plans.
But Kemp’s criticism of Abrams sounded more as if it was culled from catchall GOP criticisms of Medicare for all or from the 2009 debate over the Affordable Care Act. He called her plan a “government takeover of healthcare” and said voters wouldn’t be able to choose their doctor. At one point he said Abrams wanted a “single-payer” plan, which she has not proposed. Kemp even claimed that Abrams’s call for Medicaid expansion would result in cuts to Medicaid and Medicare.
Abrams said more than once that Vice President Mike Pence expanded Medicaid when he was governor of Indiana.
Kemp said he had “a plan to strengthen rural Georgia” but gave no specifics as to what it was, although his website issues page has a five-point plan for the region. In the debate, Kemp felt little need to stress the specifics of his plan.
Kemp also claimed that Abrams had “called on illegals to vote” for her in the election. He was referring to a video in which Abrams, at a campaign rally, describes the coalition of voters that she hopes will carry her to victory. “A blue wave is African-Americans, it’s white, it’s Latino, it’s Asian-Pacific Islander, it is disabled, it is differently abled, it is LGBTQ, it is law enforcement, it is veterans, it is made up of those who have been told they are not worthy of being here, it is comprised of those who are documented and undocumented,” she said.
Abrams misspoke in including undocumented immigrants in the group of people who can vote. The law forbids it, and only a few localities in Maryland and California allow undocumented immigrants to vote, and then only in municipal elections.
But Kemp’s assertion went beyond what Abrams had said. “I have never in my life asked for anyone who is not legally eligible to vote to be able to cast a ballot,” Abrams said. “What I’ve asked for is that you allow those who are legally eligible to vote to allow them to cast their ballots.”
Kemp, as secretary of state, is overseeing the state’s election, even as he runs for the highest office in Georgia. He said during the debate’s opening minutes that he would remain in that position even if the election goes to a recount.
And Kemp dismisses criticism of his methods in removing voters from the rolls using a process known as “exact match,” in which voter registrations can be flagged if there is a discrepancy between their application form and their identification records on file with the state or the federal Social Security database. And in fact, Kemp said Tuesday night that 75 percent of the registrations his office has flagged conflicted with the federal database, essentially placing that matter in an area where no one in the state has direct control over a remedy.
Over 50,000 voter registrations have been flagged and put in “pending status” under this system, with around 80 percent of these registrations belonging to people of color. Kemp’s office has said these voters can still cast a ballot if they bring “a government photo ID that substantially matches the registration application” to the polls. That’s a change from the past, when Kemp’s office automatically canceled voter registrations if there was even a minor discrepancy with state of federal records.
The change in procedure is a result of a lawsuit brought in 2016 against Kemp’s office by a coalition of voting rights groups, which Kemp’s office settled. “I have never had to be sued to do my job,” Abrams said at one point during the Tuesday debate.
Abrams said that her main concern with Kemp’s conduct is that he has been “creating an atmosphere of fear, making people worry their votes won’t count.”
A day before the debate, the New York Times reported on a photo that had surfaced from 1992, when Abrams — then a freshman at Spellman College in Atlanta — took part in a demonstration on the Capitol steps that included burning of the state flag, which at the time prominently displayed the Confederate battle flag design. The flag was changed in 2003 to remove the Confederate symbol.
Asked at the beginning of the debate about this photo, Abrams defended her actions.
“As a college freshman, I, along with many other Georgians … were deeply disturbed by the racial divisiveness that were embedded in the state flag with that Confederate symbol,” she said. “I took an action of peaceful protest.”
Kemp, she pointed out, was a state senator who voted to change the flag.
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