ATLANTA — The top two Republicans running for governor in Georgia launched the first of three debates Sunday by bickering over who was responsible for 2020 and 2021 Republican election losses, with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue pressing his attack that incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp is to blame for Democratic control in Washington, while Kemp fired back that Perdue was trying to pass the blame for his own loss to Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Perdue, as he has throughout his campaign, showcased his support for debunked claims that Democrats fraudulently won the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia.
“The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen," Perdue said during a debate sponsored by Atlanta's WSB-TV. "All the madness we see today ... all that started right here in Georgia when our governor caved and allowed out radical Democrats to steal our elections.”
Kemp, though, said he followed the law and that Perdue was lying to voters about his claim that Kemp permitted a settlement agreement over how signatures on absentee ballots were verified. Kemp was not a party to the agreement, but Perdue claims Kemp should have called a special session and asked lawmakers to reverse it. He also says Kemp should have done more to investigate fraud claims.
Kemp was required by state law to certify the results and has repeatedly said any other course would have invited endless litigation. Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
“You have a candidate that is going to attack my record, unfortunately, all night tonight, because they didn’t have a record there to beat Jon Ossoff in 2020,” Kemp said.
The debates come as time grows short to persuade the many Georgia voters who will cast ballots ahead of primary election day on May 24. Counties can begin mailing absentee ballots Monday and early in-person voting begins May 2. Additional debates will be held Thursday in Savannah and May 1 in Atlanta.
Kemp, facing a Republican primary electorate that polls show widely believes that President Donald Trump did not lose fairly, did not say that he thought the 2020 and 2021 elections were fair and did not say that he thought there was no fraud.
“Look, I was as frustrated as anybody else,” Kemp said. “That’s why we passed the strongest election integrity act in the country, because a lot of things were done by other people.”
The debate at times devolved into testy exchanges where both Kemp and Perdue accuse the other of lying.
The incumbent sought to highlight his record, including raising teacher and employee pay, cutting taxes and quickly lifting restrictions after Georgia’s brief COVID-19 lockdown. Kemp said that's a better way to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams than endless litigation of past elections.
“That is a record that will beat Stacey Abrams in November, not looking in the rearview mirror,” Kemp said.
Perdue, though, argues that only he can win votes from Trump diehards and others to beat Abrams.
"He has divided us," Perdue said of Kemp. “He will not be able to beat Stacey Abrams. And if we want to protect our freedom and our values, we have to vote and we have to make sure that Stacey is never our governor.”
Kemp repeatedly deflected when asked if he supports the affluent, mostly white Buckhead neighborhood seceding from Atlanta. That effort died in the state legislature this year amid opposition from business groups, top Republican lawmakers and the city of Atlanta. Kemp said instead he was focused on reducing crime in Atlanta now.
"I think the debate needs to continue," Kemp said “I’m going to continue to keep my powder dry. Let this movement come forward or not. That’s a decision that the legislature is going to make.”
Perdue said that was an example of Kemp being a “weak” governor, supporting Buckhead's exit from Atlanta.
“They’re trying to protect themselves,” Perdue said of his support for a vote to let Buckhead become its own city. “And the only way to do that is to get control of their own government. Keep your powder dry? People are getting killed up there right now.”
Perdue also promises a gradual elimination of the state income tax.
Perdue is endorsed by Trump, who has been focused on defeating Kemp. But Kemp has maintained a lead in fundraising and in the polls thus far as he seeks a second term. Besides Kemp and Perdue, the primary includes Republicans Catherine Davis, Kandiss Taylor and Tom Williams. A runoff would be held June 21 if needed.
Libertarian Shane Hazel and independent Al Bartell are also on the November ballot.