ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued perhaps his clearest commitment yet that he won't pursue any new restrictions on abortion or birth control, using a Monday evening debate against Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams to clarify his position on an issue he's sometimes avoided as he seeks a second term.
Kemp said in the debate's opening moments that he “would not” go beyond the “heartbeat bill” he signed in 2019 to ban nearly all abortions at six weeks of pregnancy, a point that comes before many women know they're pregnant. The law, which went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned a woman's constitutional right to abortion services, includes exceptions in cases of rape, incest and health risks to pregnant women.
Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp four years ago, has criticized the Republican incumbent as an extremist on abortion, leaving him trapped between moderates who want more permissive abortion laws and activists in Kemp's base who want the governor to move even further to outright bans on abortion or restrictions on Plan B, an over-the-counter contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy even after an egg is fertilized.
The debate question came after Kemp was captured on tape by a voter who was pressing him to commit to more restrictions. Kemp did not directly offer his position, musing that any new moves would depend on the makeup of the Georgia General Assembly. Democrats and abortion-rights supporters seized on the tape, which Kemp's campaign said was authentic, as proof of Kemp's threat to birth control.
Kemp sought Monday to quell any such concerns. “That's not my desire” to push any new abortion or birth control legislation, he said.
Beyond abortion, Kemp and Abrams rekindled their long-standing feud over voting rights, with Abrams accusing Kemp as governor and previously as secretary of state of trying to make it harder for some Georgians to vote.
Abrams said, however, that she would accept the outcome of the November election. “I will always acknowledge the outcome of elections, but I will never deny access to every voter, because that is the responsibility of every American to defend the right to vote,” she said.
Kemp urged voters to remember that he was among the Republican governors who relaxed public restrictions early in the COVID-19 pandemic, including resisting widespread mask mandates and school closures.
“Our economy is incredible ... we are the ones that's been fighting for you when Ms. Abrams was not,” Kemp said.
Still, he found himself on the defensive from Libertarian Shane Hazel, who blasted Kemp for ever going along with any restrictions and for endorsing the government-distributed COVID vaccine.
For Abrams, the debate underlined her need to persuade voters not just to choose her but to fire the incumbent.
Kemp has been standing on his record, telling voters that his decision to reopen Georgia’s economy early during the COVID-19 pandemic, much criticized at the time, has borne benefits. He’s combined that with billions in tax cuts and rebates, rolling back gas taxes, sending out income tax rebates and even sending $350 gift cards to people receiving public benefits.
Abrams and other Democrats have steamed as Kemp has used the power of the governor’s office to spend heavily, noting much of the spending is underwritten by a Democratic COVID-19 relief bill that Kemp opposed. Abrams argues she has a better longer-term vision for Georgia’s economy, pledging a much larger teacher pay raise than the $5,000 Kemp delivered, an expanded Medicaid program, increased access to state contracts for small and minority-owned businesses and broader access to college aid paid for by gambling.
The incumbent has also been trying to use crime as an issue to bludgeon Abrams. Monday, Kemp rolled out a fresh set of anti-crime proposals including increasing mandatory prison sentences for recruiting juveniles into a gang to at least 10 years and making it harder for judges to release people who have been arrested without cash bail.
The proposals, which would need to be approved by the state legislature before becoming law, were panned by the Abrams campaign. She touts a crime plan that would reverse looser gun rules under Kemp, keep people from returning to prison and increase pay for prison and juvenile detention guards.
Monday’s debate as Georgians began flooding to the polls for 19 days of early in-person voting. Herb McCaulla, who owns a business selling pop culture memorabilia, praised Kemp’s decision to reopen Georgia’s economy after voting in Lilburn.
“He’s doing a great job,” McCaulla said. “He kept this state afloat during the COVID craziness.”
Democrats, though, said they opposed Kemp because he signed a restrictive abortion bill and loosened gun laws.
“I want Kemp out, Chalmers Stewart said.
Democrats are trying to push their voters to the polls early, and with Donald Trump’s past baseless attacks on mail ballots as fraud-prone, early voting could tilted toward that party.
More than 4 million people could vote in the state’s elections this year, and if past patterns hold, more than half are likely to cast ballots before Election Day. Gabriel Sterling, an official with the Georgia Secretary of State, said more than 100,000 people had cast early votes on Monday, the first day of early in-person voting. Sterling said that surpassed a previous record of 72,000 for a midterm cycle with hours of early voting remaining.
More than 200,000 people have requested mail ballots already, with an Oct. 28 deadline to request them. Early in-person voting will run through Nov. 4, with counties mandated to offer two Saturdays of balloting and given the option of offering two Sundays.
Kemp and Abrams are scheduled to meet for a second debate on Oct. 30.