ATLANTA (AP) — Voter suppression charges and counterclaims of encouraging illegal voting dominated the first debate between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp in the race for Georgia governor.
Libertarian candidate Ted Metz also participated in Tuesday’s debate.
Disputes over voting access took center stage at the debate, highlighting Abrams’ historic bid to become the first black female governor in American history and the long-simmering politics of race in the Deep South. Kemp, who is white, continued to fend off charges that he’s using his position as Georgia secretary of state to make it harder for minority voters to cast ballots.
Abrams said Kemp’s record as secretary of state “causes great concern” and pointed to the release of voter data under Kemp’s watch and the state’s “exact match” voter registration system, which has left tens of thousands of voter registrations “pending” due to inconsistencies.
The Democrat said she takes voting rights “very seriously” and said her own father had once been arrested trying to help people get registered.
“Voter suppression isn’t only about blocking the vote: It’s also about creating an atmosphere of fear, making people worry that their votes won’t count,” Abrams said.
Kemp said accusations that he was suppressing the vote were “totally untrue.”
“I’ve staked the integrity of my whole career on the duty that I have as secretary of state. I have always fulfilled and followed the laws of our state and I’ll continue to do that,” Kemp said.
Kemp said his record included making it “easy to vote and hard to cheat” in Georgia.
He fired back, citing a recent video clip in which Abrams seems to say that “undocumented” immigrants were part of her coalition.
“Why are you encouraging people to break the law to vote for you?” Kemp asked.
Abrams denied the allegation, saying Kemp was twisting her words and her record of fighting to make it easier for legal citizens to vote.
The two also traded barbs over education and health care policy.
Abrams repeatedly emphasized her plan to expand Medicaid in Georgia, calling it a “bipartisan solution” that Vice President Mike Pence embraced when he was Indiana’s Republican governor.
Kemp said Abrams wants a “government takeover of healthcare” and will raise taxes to pay for it.
The race is being watched as a barometer for Democrats’ success in the midterm elections, as they try to make gains in Congress and in important state positions to counter President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Tensions escalated following a recent Associated Press report that more than 53,000 voter applications — nearly 70 percent of them from black applicants — were on hold with Kemp’s office ahead of the election.
Abrams has leveraged media coverage of the list and accused Kemp of actively suppressing minority votes.
Kemp vehemently denies it and says those on the “pending” list can still vote with an approved ID that substantially matches registration information. Kemp has hit back hard at Abrams, saying she’s “too extreme for Georgia.”
Two reports surfaced just before the debate that played into their competing narratives.
A New York Times report identified Abrams as a participant in a burning of the Georgia flag while she was a college student in 1992 during a protest over a prominent Confederate symbol which was then part of the flag’s design.
Abrams addressed the issue at the debate, saying: “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. I took an action of peaceful protest.”
Rolling Stone magazine released an audio clip in which Kemp appears to say that he is worried about an “unprecedented” number of absentee ballot applications after Abrams’ campaign focused on turning out its base with absentee ballots.
Kemp’s campaign did not address the audio recording in a statement, but said it was fighting to stop Abrams and the “San Francisco socialists and liberal billionaires from New York” that back her.
Abrams’ campaign said the recording shows “Brian Kemp’s contempt for democracy is now on full display as he flaunts his fear that his office’s blatant efforts at voter suppression won’t be sufficient to win this election for him.”
Both candidates have attracted national heavyweights in a sign of just how seriously the parties are taking the contest.
Abrams’ campaign has enlisted celebrities like recording artist John Legend, as well as politicians like U.S. Senators Corey Booker and Kamala Harris. She’s also been endorsed by former president Barack Obama.
Kemp, who earned President Trump’s endorsement, saw visits from Donald Trump Jr., Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, among others.
By BEN NADLER, Associated Press
AP national writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report.