Five takeaways from Abrams and Kemp's heated debate

Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp faced off Tuesday night in their first debate in Georgia’s razor-thin gubernatorial race.

The debate, which also included Libertarian candidate Ted Metz, was marked by sharp personal attacks, hot-button issues such as immigration and health care, and continued allegations of voter suppression.

There was also a moment of local TV awkwardness when the forum was interrupted by a fire alarm. The debate paused for a couple minutes until the alarm was turned off.

With the race in solidly red Georgia currently rated a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report, Abrams stands a chance at becoming the country’s first black female governor, and Tuesday’s debate could prove critical to either candidate.

Here are five takeaways from the debate.

Voter suppression allegations take center stage

Allegations of voter suppression led by Kemp, Georgia's current secretary of state, have become a major issue in recent days.

Abrams has called on Kemp to step down after The Associated Press reported that more than 53,000 voter registration applications — 70 percent of them from black voters — are on hold after failing to meet the state’s “exact match” law.

Georgia law requires an applicant's information on a voter registration form to exactly match the information on a federal or state database.

Kemp said he would not resign as the candidates skirted around the issue early in the debate. The moderators later asked Kemp directly about voter suppression.

Kemp strongly defended himself against the allegation, saying he is “absolutely not” using his position to suppress the minority group. He called the idea that he is doing so a “farce” meant to be a “distraction” from Abrams’s “extreme agenda.”

Abrams shot back that “the right to vote is a right,” discussing her family’s history struggling for voting rights. She alleged that “more people have lost the right to vote” under Kemp, saying that he helped create "an atmosphere of fear." 

“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,” she said.

Immigration emerges as key issue

Immigration also took the spotlight, with Kemp accusing Abrams of wanting to allow undocumented immigrants to vote in the election.

Kemp appeared to be referring to comments Abrams made at a campaign stop earlier in October, where she said a coming “blue wave” will include both documented and undocumented immigrants. Conservatives have seized on the comments to accuse her of encouraging illegal voting. 

Kemp said “Georgians should simply Google the clip” to see for themselves what Abrams said.

Abrams said she has “never in [her] life asked for anyone who is not legally eligible to vote” to do so. Instead, she brought the question back to the issue of voter suppression.

“What I’ve asked for is that you allow those that are legally eligible to vote to allow them to cast their ballots,” she continued. 

Immigration came up again with a discussion about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which the Trump administration moved to rescind last year. Multiple federal judges have blocked ending the program, which provides protections from deportation for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, since that announcement.

Kemp doubled down on his belief that students benefitting from DACA should not be allowed to receive in-state tuition for the state's colleges, saying such immigrants do not count as “our own people."

He also criticized Abrams's support for Georgia's HOPE scholarship, which can provide financial assistance to undocumented students.

Abrams framed her support for the scholarship program in economic terms, saying it can help fuel the state's economy and address its nursing shortage.

Medicaid a defining issue in race

The two candidates also butted heads over Medicaid, an increasingly contentious issue as Democratic candidates have pushed to expand the government program that provides medical care to some individuals in need.

Abrams sought to present Medicaid as a "bipartisan" program offering Georgia's "only" health-care solution, while Kemp called her proposal "a single-payer radical government takeover of health care."

"My day-one priority is expansion of Medicaid," Abrams said, later calling it the “only one solution in the state of Georgia.” She added that, having "been through 11 legislative sessions," she knows it will take "more than a day."

Abrams promised her health-care plan would cover half a million Georgians, giving them "access to health care they need.”

She contrasted her plan with Kemp's, saying his health-care plan consists of nothing "other than saying trust your insurance companies."

Abrams later in the debate made an appeal for Medicaid expansion directed toward rural voters, who are facing an increasing strain as local hospitals shut down throughout the state. 

"I know that we all care about Georgia families," she said. "I know that we do not want to see more rural hospitals close." 

Candidates did not hold back from personal attacks

The debate was marked by personal attacks on all sides, with Abrams and Metz accusing Kemp of shady and unethical behavior while Kemp hit Abrams over her taxes. 

Kemp throughout the debate made an issue of Abrams's taxes, accusing her of failing to pay them even though she is a tax attorney.

“When you put politics over paying the government the taxes you owe, that does make you unfit to be governor,” he said.

"My wife and I have always paid our taxes," he added.

Abrams explained that she had to defer paying her taxes when she was paying for her father's cancer treatment.

"You can defer taxes but you can't defer cancer treatment," she told Kemp.

Abrams also stepped up her criticism of Kemp, accusing him of creating "an atmosphere of fear" for Georgia voters as she hit him repeatedly over his questionable voting rights record as secretary of state.

She brought up a report that found more than 3,000 law enforcement officials in the state were on food stamps due to low wages. Kemp has said it is not the state's responsibility to deal with the issue, referring it to local governments.

"Why is it not the governor’s responsibility to ensure that law enforcement officers protecting our state are paid a living wage?" she asked.

Later, she said she would always make sure police officers "can put food on their tables while we ask them to protect our families."

The two candidates throughout the debate called the other's comments "dishonest," "cherry-picked" or "misleading."

Metz, who for the most part went ignored by the two candidates, at the end associated Kemp and Abrams with "corruption." 
 
He said a vote for him was a vote against the "oligarchs" running the country. 

Abrams emphasized bipartisanship, Kemp played to his base  

Throughout the debate, Abrams made more efforts to present herself as a bipartisan, center-of-the-road candidate, while Kemp doubled down on his conservative record.

Kemp touted the same positions that endeared him to President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE and his loyal base. He raised fears over what he referred to as "illegals" and pledged to fight for conservative values against socialism.

Abrams, on the other hand, mentioned more than once that she "reached across the aisle" during her time as a state legislator, calling herself the "only" candidate with a "strong record of bipartisan leadership."

She touted her unequivocal support for local law enforcement and even invoked Vice President Pence's support for Medicaid expansion when he was governor of Indiana, saying she and Pence agree because it is a proven "bipartisan program."

During the immigration discussion, Abrams avoided overarching moral arguments and stuck to a discussion of how DACA recipients can contribute to Georgia's economy.

Kemp got in the final word of the debate, accusing Abrams of promoting "radical" and "extreme" policies.

"Not even California is that liberal," he said of her stance on immigration, adding that he hopes to "fight for our conservative values."