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Insight: Midterms show why going left in the South leaves Democrats in a hole

Democrats’ short-term problem isn’t rallying their base; it’s getting buried in small towns and rural areas

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Heading into the midterm elections, there was a great deal of chatter around the thesis that Democrats had found a new way to win statewide races in the South — by nominating liberals who fashion themselves as “progressives” and could rally base and minority voters.

No more mamby pamby moderates, please. Give Southerners liberalism unvarnished, and they would come.

But, alas for Democrats, this strategy proved rather impotent. Beto O’Rourke won’t be a U.S. senator from Texas. Andrew Gillum won’t be governor of Florida, nor Stacey Abrams governor of Georgia.

As Democrats look ahead to 2020, the results in the South in 2018 illustrate why the strategy of tacking to the left, both regionally and nationally, may play right into the hands of the two men they most love to hate, Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In November, Democrats made major pushes in the five largest Southern states — Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia — targeting federal and statewide races. The only place that strategy worked well was in Virginia, already reliably in the Democratic column.

In Florida, with Gillum and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson leading their ticket, Democrats took just two of the nine targeted House seats and lost both a Senate seat and the governor’s race — in fact, every statewide race except for agriculture commissioner.

In Texas, with O’Rourke leading the way by not beating Ted Cruz, Democrats took just two of eight targeted House seats, and all eight GOP incumbents running for re-election statewide won – Governor Greg Abbott by more than 1 million votes.

In Georgia, Abrams’s candidacy helped the suburban doughnut around Atlanta to the Democratic column, costing Republicans one House seat. But she fell short against an opponent, Brian Kemp, who lacked her polish or political skills.

In North Carolina, none of the House seats targeted by Democrats flipped, though they did manage to reduce the GOP’s previously veto-proof majority in the legislature.

The results for Democrats were even more grim in the smaller Southern states. In Arkansas, where as recently as 2010 Democrats held the governorship and every statehouse post, they didn’t come within 20 points in any statewide race and lost every federal race for the third election in a row.

So why is this important in 2020? Because if Democrats can’t win statewide races in the South, they face daunting math in both the Electoral College and the Senate. And the near total failure of out-and-out “progressive” candidates to win in 2018 raises serious questions about the wisdom of nominating them two years from now.

If Trump sweeps the South outside of Virginia, he’s at 167 electoral votes. Add to that the 36 votes of the reliably Republican states in the West and Great Plains, and he’s at 203. And in every presidential election but one since World War II, the same candidate that has carried Florida also carried Ohio, which puts him at 221.

Thus, Trump would need just 49 electoral votes from the remaining states; in 2016, he got 85. To deny him the presidency, a Democrat would have to take away Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, with no room for error.

Now consider how much easier it would be for a Democrat to beat Trump if he or she could pick off some states in the South, as both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did on their way to the White House.

And consider how unlikely that will be if the Democratic ticket is headed by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

The Senate math is even more daunting. Of the 22 Republican-held seats up in 2020, 12 are in the South and six in those reliably Republican areas in the West. Democrats must also defend a seat in Alabama.

Democrats need to flip four seats to get to a majority. So if they are shut out in the South, including Alabama, the best they can hope for is a 50-50 tie, even if they run the table in the four remaining GOP-held states — Arizona, Iowa, Colorado and Maine.

Of course, proponents of the with-progressives-we-can-win-strategy will point to the fact that O’Rourke, Gillum and Abrams came closer to victory than Democrats have in recent elections — and also closer than Phil Bredesen, the Democratic moderate in Tennessee’s Senate race.

That may be true, but it also begs this question: Given the political winds blowing in Democrats’ favor in 2018, might they have won those close races had they nominated candidates more willing to trim their progressive sails?

Long-term demographic trends, particularly more urban and minority voters and a shift toward Democrats in the suburbs of major cities, do threaten Republican hegemony in the South. But 2020 is not the long term.

The biggest short-term problem for Democrats in the South is that they are getting buried in small towns and rural areas outside of major cities with majority white populations, digging a hole so deep that there are not enough urban, suburban and minority voters to get them out of it.

Kemp took at least 70 percent of the vote in half of Georgia’s counties. In the 350 miles of Florida from Pensacola to Jacksonville, Gillum won just two counties. And if you drew a line across Texas from El Paso to Austin to Houston, O’Rourke’s only victories north of that line were in Dallas and Fort Worth.

If Democrats can’t fix their problem with rural voters, they are unlikely to win statewide in the South in 2020 — and 2018 shows that throwing self-styled progressives against the Republicans’ big red wall is certainly not the solution.

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Decision ’18: Stacey Abrams “acknowledges” defeat in Georgia governor’s race but won’t concede

Abrams says she will sue over “malpractice” by Republican Brian Kemp in managing election

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ATLANTA (CFP) — Saying she sees “no further remedy” to allow her to overcome Republican Brian Kemp’s lead in Georgia’s governor’s race, Democrat Stacey Abrams has acknowledged Kemp’s win but is refusing to concede and vowing to file a federal lawsuit over what she sees as his mismanagement of the election.

“This is not a speech of concession because concession means to acknowledge an action is right and proper,” she said amid a somber assembly of supporters in Atlanta Friday afternoon. “As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot accept that.”

Democrat Stacey Abrams acknowledges defeat in Atlanta (From YouTube)

Abrams offered blistering criticism of Kemp, who as Georgia’s secretary of state oversaw the election until resigning two days after the November 6 vote.

“Under the watch of the now former secretary of state, democracy failed Georgia,” she said. “To watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling.”

She announced the formation of a new group, Fair Fight Georgia, which she said would file a federal lawsuit over “gross mismanagement” of the election. It was unclear what remedy the lawsuit would seek, although Abrams indicated the suit would not seek to overturn the results in the governor’s race.

Abrams and Democrats have complained that Kemp purged eligible voters from the polls and improperly rejected registrations from voters because of relatively minor discrepancies with other records. Democrats have also hit elections officials for long lines on election day and for rejecting provisional votes based on discrepancies in handwriting on documents.

“Ballots were rejected by the handwriting police,” Abrams said. “Citizens tried to exercise their constitutional rights and were still denied the ability to elect their leaders.”

Georgia Governor-elect Brian Kemp

Kemp has denied that his office sought to suppress or intimidate voters. In his response to Abrams’s non-concession concession, he said he appreciated “her passion, hard work and commitment to public service.”

“The election is over, and hardworking Georgians are ready to move forward,” he said in a statement. “We can no longer dwell on the divisive politics of the past but must focus on Georgia’s bright and promising future.”

Abrams acknowledgement of defeat came as Kemp’s successor as secretary of state, Robyn Crittenden, was poised to certify Kemp as the winner of the governor’s race. His final margin of victory over Abrams was 55,000 votes out of 3.9 million votes cast.

Under a law unique to Georgia, Kemp needed to win a majority of the votes cast, or he would have faced a December runoff against Abrams. He cleared that threshold by about 10,500 votes.

The certification was delayed two days after a federal judge in Atlanta ordered the state to give more time for voters who cast provisional ballots that had been rejected to remedy the errors.

Abrams, 44, from Atlanta, is the former Democratic leader in the Georgia House. Had she been elected, she would have been Georgia’s first black or female governor and the first black woman in U.S. history elected as a state governor.

Kemp, 55, from Athens, served two terms as secretary of state after serving in the Georgia Senate.

Kemp’s victory keeps the governor’s office in Republican hands and marks the fifth straight GOP victory for governor in the Peach State. The incumbent, Governor Nathan Deal, was term limited.

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Decision ’18: Federal judge stops Georgia from certifying election results

Democrat Stacey Abrams faces daunting math in quest for runoff in governor’s race;  7th District U.S. House race still too close to call

ATLANTA (CFP) — A federal judge has stopped Georgia’s secretary of state from certifying election results, extending for at least two more days Democrat Stacey Abrams’s slender hope of forcing her race against Republican Brian Kemp for governor into a runoff.

Meanwhile, a different federal judge ordered elections officials in suburban Gwinnett County to stop rejecting absentee ballots with incorrect or missing birth dates. The 7th U.S. House District, in which incumbent Republican Rob Woodall holds a small lead over Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, is centered in Gwinnett.

Ruling in a lawsuit filed by Common Cause Georgia, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg delayed the state’s certification of results until at least Friday at 5 p.m. to give voters who cast provisional ballots in the November 6 election more time to validate their registration information so that their votes can count. The certification of results from the state’s 159 counties had been expected Wednesday.

Totenberg also ordered the state to create a secure phone line or website where voters who cast provisional ballots can find out if their ballot has been rejected and, if so, why. Under state law, voters who cast provisional ballots have until Friday to provide documentation that would validate their votes.

Totenberg was appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama. She is the sister of Nina Totenberg, NPR’s Supreme Court correspondent.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, 21,700 provisional ballots were cast statewide, usually by voters who were not listed on the registration rolls of the precinct where they tried to vote or who could not provide an accepted form of identification. However, the Abrams campaign believes the number of provisional ballots is at least 30,820.

Stacey Abrams

Brian Kemp

The latest results show Kemp with a lead of 57,863 votes over Abrams, well beyond the number of provisional ballots. But if Kemp’s margin can be reduced to the point where he no longer has a majority of votes, under a law unique to Georgia, the two would face each other again in a runoff in December.

However the math for Abrams is daunting — if there are 30,800 provisional ballots, as her campaign claims, and all of them are valid, she would have to win 83 percent of them just to get the race to a runoff. If there are 21,700, she would have to win 98 percent.

And in court filings, state elections officials have said that usually only half of provisional ballots can be verified to count. If that is the case with the outstanding provisional ballots, a runoff is a mathematical impossibility unless more provisional ballots are found.

Kemp served as secretary of state during the election but resigned after claiming victory in the governor’s race. His campaign has been insisting that Abrams has no viable path to overcome his lead. His current lead is also large enough that Abrams cannot ask for a recount.

But the Abrams camp — which had criticized Kemp’s stewardship of the election process while serving as both secretary of state and a candidate for governor — established a hotline to locate voters who say they had trouble voting on election day, hoping to locate more potential provisional ballots.

In the 7th District race, Woodall holds a 900-vote lead over Bordeaux. With no third-party candidate in the race, a runoff is not a possibility, but the race is currently close enough to trigger a runoff.

Gwinnett County, the state’s second-largest located northeast of Atlanta, is the population center of the district, which also includes parts of Fulton and Forsyth counties. The county’s handling of absentee ballots has been contentious throughout the election, amid news reports that the county was rejecting absentee ballots at a higher rate than any other county in Georgia.

Bordeaux had gone to court alleging that the county had rejected more than 1,000 absentee ballots for “trivial” reasons. United States District Judge Leigh Martin May agreed with that argument, but only for some 220 ballots that had errors in birth dates.

May is also an Obama appointee.

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Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel’s hard-won stay in Congress comes to a swift end

After winning her seat in 2017 in the most expensive U.S. House race in history, Georgia Republican concedes to political newcomer Lucy McBath

By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ROSWELL, Georgia (CFP) — In April 2017, veteran Georgia Republican politico Karen Handel, after twice losing races for statewide office, had arrived at the promised land, at end of a very long road.

She won a special election to fill Georgia’s 6th District U.S. House seat, narrowly defeating Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff after $50 million was spent in a race fueled by Democratic anger over the election of Donald Trump.

Her future seemed assured in the 6th, anchored in Atlanta’s wealthy northern suburbs. The historically Republican seat had been previously held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, who gave it up to serve in Trump’s cabinet. And when Ossoff decided not to challenge Handel again in the midterm election, her seat seemed secure and her political career restored.

Lucy McBath

Karen Handel

Until Tuesday’s midterm election, when Handel lost her seat to Democrat Lucy McBath, who didn’t have Handel’s political pedigree but did have a compelling personal story and an issue — gun control.

“After carefully reviewing all of the election results data, it is clear that I came up a bit short on Tuesday,” Handel said in a letter to Atlanta’s WSB-TV. “Congratulations to Representative-Elect Lucy McBath and send her only good thoughts and much prayer for the journey that lies ahead for her.”

The final result was close. Unofficial results showed McBath with a 2,900-vote lead, out of 316,000 votes cast. For Handel, it was déjà vu all over again — in 2010, she lost a Republican primary runoff for governor by 2,500 votes.

McBath, 58, a former flight attendant, had never held political office before. But she became a gun control activist after her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot to death outside a convenience store in Jacksonville, Florida, by a man upset about loud hip-hop music played by Davis and three of his friends.

The shooter, Michael David Dunn, was convicted of first-degree murder in Jordan’s death and sentenced to life in prison.

After her son’s death, McBath became a national spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and was part of a group of mothers of slain African-American teens who appeared at the 2016 Democratic Convention. She decided to run for Congress after last February’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people died.

“Six years ago, I went from a Marietta mom to a mom on a mission,” McBath said in a statement declaring victory. “After my son was lost to gun violence, I stood up and started demanding more. After Parkland, I was compelled to enter this race for Congress — to provide leadership that would be about the business of putting lives over profit.”

McBath’s quest seemed implausible, running as she was against someone who had been county commission chair in the state’s largest country (Fulton) and secretary of state and came just a percentage point short in a race that would likely have made her governor. Gun control is also not an issue that generally helps Democrats, or anybody else, in Georgia.

Yet, McBath’s victory did not come completely out of left field. The district has become more diverse in recent years, with growing African-Amercian, Latino and Asian populations. Trump had only carried the 6th by 1.5 points in 2016, and Handel had to fight hard to win it in 2017. And toward the end of the campaign, McBath was winning the money chase, outraising Handel by a substantial margin.

Handel also wasn’t the only suburban Southern Republican who found tough sledding in the midterms. Incumbents lost in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Richmond, Dallas, Houston and Miamia and even in Oklahoma City and Charleston, S.C..

But Handel’s loss, and a close call in the adjoining 7th District for Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, harbors a new reality for Georgia Republicans — in the age of Trump, suburbs are no longer safe GOP territory, even in the South.

The race for Georgia governor showed the ominous portents that may await. Democrat Stacey Abrams carried not only Fulton and DeKalb counties, both with large African-American populations, but also seven surrounding suburban counties, including the two biggest, Cobb and Gwinnett. Of the eight congressional districts that contain parts of metro Atlanta, four will now be held by Democrats, and a fifth was very nearly lost.

Republicans will, no doubt, come after McBath in 2020; the 6th is now truly a swing district. But she will have two years to build up her political profile, and she will be running for re-election in a presidential election year, which usually helps Democrats.

And Lucy McBath will always be the woman who won a race she wasn’t supposed to win, against a woman who wasn’t supposed to lose.

Decision ’18: Democrats fail to make major breakthrough in the South

Republicans sweep U.S. Senate and governor’s races; Democrats make a net gain of at least 9 seats in the U.S. House

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

(CFP) — The big, blue wave that Democrats hoped would carry them to a breakthrough in the South crashed into the Republican’s big, red wall in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Republicans won the high-profile governor’s race in Florida and held a lead in Georgia, easily defended U.S. Senate seats in Texas and Tennessee and appear to have ousted Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson in Florida.

Joe Manchin

The lone bright spot for Democrats in statewide races was in West Virginia, where U.S. Senator Joe Manchin held his seat.

Democrats did flip at least nine Republican-held U.S. House seats, ousting three incumbents in Virginia and winning a seat in South Carolina and another in Oklahoma that they had not won in more than 40 years. Three seats are still too close to call, with Republicans leading in two of them.

However, Republicans carried two-thirds of the 30 seats that Democrats had targeted across the region, including seven seats in Florida and Kentucky’s 6th District, where Democrat Amy McGrath failed to oust U.S. Rep. Andy Barr despite spending $7.8 million dollars.

Brian Kemp

Ron DeSantis

Republicans won all nine of the governor’s races in the South, including Florida, where Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis defeated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and Georgia, where Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp was leading former State Rep. Stacey Abrams by 60,000 votes with some mail-in ballots left to be counted.

Abrams has refused to concede.

“Votes remain to be counted. Voices waiting to be heard,” she told supporters early Wednesday morning. “We are going to make sure that every vote is counted because in a civilized nation, the machinery of democracy should work everywhere for everyone.”

Gillum and Abrams were hoping to become the first African-American governor in their respective states and end 20-year droughts in the governor’s office.

In addition to victories in Florida and Georgia, Republican governors were re-elected in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina, and GOP candidates kept open seats in Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Of the seven U.S. Southern Senate races, Republicans won four and the Democrats two, with one race in Mississippi heading to a November runoff, which amounts to a net gain of one seat for the GOP.

Beto O’Rourke

Ted Cruz

The most high-profile race was in Texas, where Democratic U.S. Senator Beto O’Rourke ran a spirited race to try to oust Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. But in the end, Cruz won 51 percent of the vote to 48 percent for O’Rourke.

In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott defeated Nelson, who was trying for his fourth term. Scott’s win means that Florida will have two Republican senators for the first time in 100 years.

Republicans also defended a seat in Mississippi, where U.S. Senator Roger Wicker won easily, and in Tennessee, where Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn defeated Democratic former Governor Phil Bredesen by an surprisingly large 55 percent to 44 percent margin.

In Virginia, Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine won 57 percent to 41 percent for Republican Corey Stewart.

In a special election in Mississippi to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, Cochran’s temporary replacement in the Senate, advanced to a November 27 runoff against Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman who served as agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration.

Hyde-Smith and Smith both came in at 41 percent,short of the majority they needed to avoid a runoff. Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel came in third at 17 percent.

In the U.S. House races, the most high-profile casualty was 11-term Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, who lost his Dallas-area House seat to Colin Allred, an attorney and former NFL player.

 

Comstock

Brat

Other Republican U.S. House losers were Dave Brat in the suburbs of Richmond; John Culberson in Houston; Barbara Comstock in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.; Carols Curbelo in Miami; and Scott Taylor, in the Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia.

In Miami, Democrat Donna Shalala, who served as health secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration, won an open seat that had been held for 30 years by retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Two of the night’s biggest surprises came in Oklahoma City, where Republican Steve Russell was defeated by Democratic newcomer Kendra Horn, and in the Low Country of South Carolina, Democrat Joe Cunningham held a slender lead over Republican State Rep. Katie Arrington, who had ousted the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, in the Republican primary.

Arrington

Cunningham

Republican incumbent Rob Woodall led by 4,000 votes in the Atlanta suburbs, and in the Charlotte area, Republican Mark Harris held a small lead over Democrat Dan McCready.

The news was not as good for Karen Handel in suburban Atlanta, who trailed her Democratic challenger, Lucy McBath, by 2,100 votes after all of the precincts had reported.

Handel won that seat just last year in a special election that became the most expensive House race in U.S. history, in which more than $50 million was spent.

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Election Preview: Governor’s races could make history in Florida, Georgia

Democrats within shooting distance in Oklahoma, Tennessee; GOP incumbents heavily favored in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and South Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) — Eight Southern governorships are on the ballot in Tuesday’s midterm elections, highlighted by close and contentious races in Florida and Georgia that have garnered national attention.

Abrams

Gillum

Democrats are hoping to make history: If Democrat Andrew Gillum wins in Florida, he will be the Sunshine State’s first African-American governor, while a victory by Democrat Stacey Abrams in Georgia would make her not only its first black governor but also the first woman to hold the post and the first black female governor in U.S. history.

However, in both states, Democratic nominees will have to overcome a long history of Republican control. The last time a Democrat won a governor’s race in Florida was 1994; in Georgia, 1998.

Kemp

DeSantis

In Florida, the Republican nominee is former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has received considerable help in his quest for the governorship from President Donald Trump. The president stopped twice in Florida to campaign for DeSantis in the closing days of the campaign.

The Republican nominee in Georgia is Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who has also benefited from a Trump endorsement and a presidential visit on the Sunday before the vote.

Public polling has shown both races are within the statistical margin of error, which means neither race can be  forecast with certainty heading into election day.

In 2016, Trump carried Florida by a single point and Georgia by 5 points. While Florida has long been a swing state, the result in Georgia was the smallest win by a Republican in the Peach State since 1996, giving Democrats hope that it might be in play in 2020.

A win by either Abrams or Gillum would be a boon to Democratic prospects in 2020. It will also give them a say in redrawing congressional districts after the 2020 census — a process that Republicans have totally controlled in both states for the past decade.

And if the race in Georgia is close, it might not be decided on election night. State law requires a candidate to win an outright majority to claim the governorship. With a Libertarian in the race, neither major-party candidate could reach that threshold, triggering a December 4 runoff between them.

The remaining six Southern governorships up this year — all held by Republicans — look to be more secure, though Democrats may have outside shots in Oklahoma and Tennessee.

In the Sooner State, where Republican Governor Mary Fallin is term-limited, Republican businessman Kevin Stitt is facing former Democratic Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who comes to the race having served 16 years in statewide office.

Approval polling has pegged Fallin as America’s most unpopular governor, which has not helped Stitt’s cause. Oklahoma teachers also went on strike last year in a public display of protest that has reverberated through state politics.

Public polling has shown Stitt with a small lead near the edge of the margin of error. While Stitt is still regarded as the favorite, one prominent national prognosticator, The Cook Political Report, rates the race as a toss-up.

In Tennessee, where voters are also filling an open seat for a term-limited incumbent, Governor Bill Haslam, Republican Bill Lee, a first-time candidate who worked in Haslam’s administration, is facing Democrat Karl Dean, the former mayor of Nashville.

Public polling has shown Lee above 50 percent and with a statistically significant lead over Dean.

Four other governor’s races on the midterm ballot — in Arkansas, Alabama, Texas and South Carolina — all feature Republican incumbents who are expected to easily win re-election:

Heading into Tuesday’s election, Republicans hold 11 of the 14 Southern governorships; Democrats are in charge in North Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia.

See ChickenFriedPolitics.com’s latest ratings for hot governor’s races.

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Georgia governor’s debate: Candidates clash over allegations of voter suppression

Kemp insists he is “absolutely not” trying to keep down the minority vote; Abrams says voters are “scared”

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Watch full debate on GPB

ATLANTA (CFP) — The charge that Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp has been deliberately disenfranchising minority voters to gain an edge for his campaign for governor took center stage at a debate where he faced off with his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams.

Abrams and Kemp square off in first debate (Courtesy GPB)

In their first face-to-face encounter, aired October 23 by Georgia Public Broadcasting, Kemp insisted that he has “absolutely not” been targeting voters based on race, a charge made by Abrams and other voting rights advocates amid news reports that more than 50,000 voter registrations are being held in Kemp’s office because of paperwork errors.

But Abrams said Kemp’s office, by systematically removing voters from the registration rolls and holding up new registrations, has created a climate of fear for potential voters.

“They’ve been purged, they’ve been suppressed, they’ve been scared,” she said. “Voting suppression is not only about blocking the vote. It’s about creating an atmosphere of fear, making people worry that their votes won’t count.

Kemp insisted that all of the voters with registrations pending will still be allowed to vote and called allegations of voter suppression “a distraction to take away from Ms. Abrams’s extreme agenda.”

He also charged that Abrams has been encouraging illegal immigrants to come out and vote for her, an allegation she denied.

“I only believe that those who have a legal eligibility to vote should cast a ballot,” she said.

Kemp, who oversees elections as secretary of state, also said that he would not recuse himself if the governor’s race ends in a recount because recounts are primarily the responsibility of county officials, not his office.

“I took an oath of office to serve as secretary of state, and that’s exactly what I’m going to continue to do,” he said

While the candidates had expected disagreements on immigration and expanding Medicare, the debate, sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club, began with a question about an incident from Abrams’s past that rocketed through cyberspace on the day for the debate – her participation in a 1992 protest where the Georgia state flag, which then featured the Confederate battle ensign, was set on fire.

“Twenty-six years ago, as a college freshman, I along with many other Georgians, including the governor of Georgia, were deeply disturbed by the racial divisiveness that was embedded in the state flag with that Confederate symbol,” she said.

“I took an action of peaceful protest. I said that that was wrong, and 10 years later, my opponent, Brian Kemp actually voted to remove that symbol (as a state senator).”

Although the flag burning issue has been gathering widespread attention, neither Kemp nor Libertarian nominee, Ted Metz, brought it up again during the rest of the debate. The Confederate emblem was removed from the state flag in 2001.

In her campaign, Abrams has been calling for expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, an idea that has been blocked by Republicans in the Georgia Legislature. In the debate, she touted Medicaid expansion as a way to spur economic development in rural areas.

“Rural Georgia has been losing hospitals at an alarming rate, and because of that loss we have companies leaving, we have people without access to health care, we’re not doing the kind of economic development work we can do,” she said, adding that expanding Medicaid would bring $3 billion in federal money to the state and create 56,000 jobs.

But Kemp, who opposes Medicaid expansion, said that “expanding a broken government program is no answer to solving the problem.”

He also pointed to a book Abrams wrote in which she called for a single-payer government health plan financed by tax increases and cuts in Medicaid and Medicare, an idea he called “radical.”

“Abrams’s plan will make your current insurance plan illegal. It will not allow you to choose your doctor, and she’s going to raise your taxes to pay for it,” he said. “And if you’re on Medicaid or Medicare, this should scare you to death.”

Kemp also criticized Abrams for wanting to extend the state’s HOPE scholarship program for high school students to Georgia graduates who were brought into the country illegally as children, commonly known as Dreamers. He said he also opposes allowing them to attend state colleges.

“I’ve been running my whole campaign on putting Georgians first. I think we need to continue to do that,” he said. “I think we need to continue to fight for our own people, our own state.”

But Abrams said, “I stand by believing that every Georgian who graduates from our high schools should be allowed to attend our colleges, and if they’re eligible, receive the HOPE scholarship.”

Abrams, 44, is an Atlanta attorney and former Democratic minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives. Kemp is a former state senator from Athens who has served two terms as secretary of state.

They are scheduled to meet for a second and final debate on November 4, the Sunday before the November 6 election.

With polls showing a close race and Metz on the ballot, the governor’s race in the Peach State could be headed to a runoff.

Georgia is the only state that requires a general election winner to capture a majority of the vote. If neither Abrams or Kemp win a majority, a runoff between them will be held December 4.

In the last open race for governor, in 2010, the Libertarian nominee got 4 percent of the vote

General election runoffs, while rare, have proven to have unpredictable results. In 1992, Republican Paul Coverdell ousted Democratic U.S. Senator Wyche Fowler in a runoff, even though Fowler had come out slightly ahead in the initial vote.

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