The debate came at a crucial time for Abrams as she seeks to gain ground after having trailed in the polls all year. Kemp is leading Abrams by 5 to 6 percentage points in averages of recent surveys, with just three weeks to go until Election Day.
“I’m on the right side of history and on the right side of the issues. But we also know that polls are a snapshot. The question is: Who are they taking a picture of?” Abrams said early in the debate when she was asked why polls suggest Kemp is more popular even though voters have indicated support for her positions on abortion and Medicaid expansion. “I do not believe that I’m behind. I believe I’m making the case for Georgia.”
Kemp, who has signed a ban on abortions after six weeks, declared early on in the debate that he "would not" pursue further restrictions on abortion or target contraception if he is re-elected. "That's not my desire to do that," he said.
Monday's showdown, the first of two scheduled debates between Kemp and Abrams, was held on the same day early voting kicked off in Georgia, a battleground state where they are locked in a rematch of their acrimonious 2018 race. They were joined onstage by Libertarian Party candidate Shane Hazel.
Abrams vowed to accept the result of the 2022 election, win or lose.
"I will always acknowledge the outcome of an election, but I will never deny access to every vote, because that is the responsibility of every American to defend the right to vote," Abrams said, accusing Kemp of seeking to restrict Georgians' right to vote.
Kemp defended his actions on ballot access in Georgia. “Ms. Abrams is going to lie about my record, because she doesn’t want to talk about her own," he said.
Abrams emphasized her support for law enforcement when Kemp asked her how many sheriffs have endorsed her campaign, saying she doesn't have the luxury of reducing her platform to a slogan. "We need safety and justice," she said.
Kemp rejoined: "The answer is zero."
Abrams hit Kemp for restricting legal abortion and backing permissive gun laws, which she said have made Georgia less safe. “We have a governor who’s weakened gun laws across the state, flooded our streets with guns by letting dangerous people get access to the weapons,” she said, calling for waiting periods and universal background checks, among other policies.
The candidates were split over whether to expand Medicaid under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which would extend coverage to an estimated 450,000 Georgians. Kemp has rejected expanding Medicaid, calling it a “broken government program,” while Abrams argued it’s necessary to protect Georgians.
Kemp sought to tie Abrams to President Joe Biden, whom he blamed for inflation. “Stacey Abrams campaigned to be Joe Biden’s running mate. She supports these policies,” he said.
Abrams highlighted her aggressive plans to use Georgia’s budget surplus to raise teacher pay and boost funding for preschool. She also insisted that even a Republican-led Legislature wouldn't thwart her progressive ideas if she is elected.
"I don't actually believe there is staunch Republican opposition," she said, touting her work "with people to find out how to get solutions" from her time as minority leader of the state House.
In closing, Kemp made his case for a second term, saying: "Georgia is the greatest state in the country to live, work and raise our children, and that’s why I’m asking for your vote of support to keep it that way."
Abrams closed with criticism: "Brian Kemp did make promises. He promised to keep us safe, but crime has gone up. He promised to protect us, and yet he’s attacked our freedoms. He promised to take care of our families, and yet the rising prices in Georgia are rising because he refuses to expand Medicaid, because he refuses to tackle the affordable housing crisis."