Credit: GPB News
Battleground: Ballot Box | Disruptions and disagreements dominate Georgia debates
On this week's episode, we look at what key general election debates tell us — or don’t — about Georgia’s top candidates.
Early voting is underway in Georgia for the midterm elections, and that means it’s also debate season. In the last few days we’ve seen everything from honorary police badge props and interrupting Libertarians to backtracking on key issues and sharp barbs over Georgia’s future.
There was a lot to unpack in hours of faceoffs between candidates like Gov. Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, and there’s more at stake than just a political title in a state that is quickly growing in population and political stature.
This week, we look at what key general election debates and what they tell us or don’t about Georgia’s top candidates.
Political debates have a long, rich tradition in our country — a tradition that, recently, has begun to crumble. In our hyper-polarized political environment, candidates from both sides of the aisle have started skipping out on debates, and Georgia is no exception.
Several of Georgia’s likely next members of Congress, like Democratic Reps. Lucy McBath and David Scott and Republican Mike Collins declined to show up to Atlanta Press Club debates this week, as did Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker.
But in the debate Walker did show up for in Savannah Friday night, we saw some fireworks while Walker and Warnock largely stuck to the script of what we expected them to say.
Warnock is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents on the ballot this November, and has spent most of the campaign touting his ability to work with Republicans on issues impacting his constituents.
“I've worked across the aisle time and time again to get good things done for the people of Georgia," he said. "I worked with the senator from Texas to build out I-14. I worked with a Republican senator from Alabama to help Georgia farmers get their products to market. I will work with anyone and stand up against anybody I need to stand up against to get good things done for Georgia. I work for the people of Georgia.”
He’s also touted legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act and measures he wrote capping the cost of insulin and prescription drugs for seniors, and calling Walker out for opposing the bill.
“We passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which had two of my provisions," Warnock said. "One caps the cost of prescription drugs for seniors so they don't have to choose between buying medicine and buying groceries, and one caps the cost of insulin. [Walker] said he would not have voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, and I think he should tell the people of Georgia why he thinks they should have expensive insulin and why the pharmaceutical companies should be able to charge us whatever they like.”
For his part, Walker has tried to center his campaign around tying Warnock to President Joe Biden and his unpopularity, arguing that Warnock is responsible for inflation and other economic woes.
“Sen. Warnock, he went to Washington, but he forgot about Georgia," Walker said. "He just mentioned he stands for the people of Georgia. But can you tell me why he voted with Joe Biden 96% of the time? If he was standing for Georgia, that tells you that he's for Joe Biden and I’m for Georgia.”
Now, there’s not much substantive discussion that happened for most of this hourlong debate. The questions and debate format weren’t that great, where moderators ignored followups on things that needed more answers and largely stifled actual debate between the two on issues that matter to Georgians.
Walker was asked as many questions about a recent report that he allegedly paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion despite supporting a total abortion ban as he was about calls to rename the Atlanta Braves.
One of the few notable things to actually come from the debate was Walker’s backtracking on that abortion stance, claiming he now supports Georgia’s current law that bans abortion around six weeks into pregnancy instead.
“I support the 'heartbeat bill,' and I say I support the Georgia 'heartbeat bill' because that's the bill of the people from Gov. Kemp," Walker said. "And I said that has exceptions in it, as I am a Christian, but I am also representing the people of Georgia and that's who I represent. So what the people of Georgia stand for, I'm going to stand with them.”
Recent polling suggests a majority of Georgians are not in favor of Georgia’s law, which effectively bans most abortions before some even know they’re pregnant.
Warnock largely avoided political minefields by largely avoiding direct answers to some questions, like the moderators insisting he answer a question about supporting President Joe Biden if he runs again in 2024.
Senator Warnock, a simple yes or no here, you will have a chance to explain. But I'd like a simple yes or no. Would you support President Biden running for a second term in 2024?"
I've not spent a minute thinking about what politician should run for what, in 2024.
Is that a yes or a no?
The answer is I have not. And maybe this is difficult. Maybe this is difficult for people to understand because that's how politicians think. I think that part of the problem with our politics right now is that it has become too much about the politicians. You're asking me who's going to run in ‘24? The people of Georgia get to decide who's going to be their senator in three days Monday. And I hope they'll show up and vote. And I'd be honored to represent them in the Senate.
You haven't thought about it. If you can think about it now, in 2024, the president will turn 82 years old. Are you concerned about his physical and his mental fitness at that time? You have 30 seconds.
The people of Georgia hired me to represent them, regardless of who's in the White House. I'm I'm honored to do that job every single day. My dad said, if somebody hires you to do a job, do the job they hired you to do. They didn't hire me to be a pundit. And I'm working every single day for hardworking families in Georgia, for our women, for our workers, and for kids like me growing up in places like Kayton Homes.
The only truly memorable moment in the debate came after Walker attacked Warnock and claimed he did not support law enforcement.
“We've already seen that my opponent has a problem with the truth," Warnock said. "And just because he says something doesn't mean it's true. I have supported our police officers. I've called them and I've prayed with their families, like those officers lost in Cobb County."
The debate was briefly derailed when Warnock turned the tables on Walker.
"One thing I have not done: I've never pretended to be a police officer," he said. "And I've never — I've never threatened a shootout with the police.”
That led to a viral exchange where Walker pulled out an honorary sheriff’s badge from his hometown of Johnson County, and a moderator scolded him for using a "prop" against the rules.
“And you know what’s so funny, I am — work with many police officers," Walker said.
Memes ensued, and whatever other takeaways both candidates hoped for were probably lost. Predictably, both sides declared victory and the voters of Georgia didn’t really learn anything new or different about these two top candidates.
On Sunday, the second Senate debate wasn’t much different.
Walker declined to show up and was represented by an empty lectern, but Warnock faced Libertarian Chase Oliver, and both of them repeatedly called out the Republican for skipping.
“I think it's important to point out that my opponent, Herschel Walker, is not here," Warnock said. "And I think that half of being a senator is showing up.”
Oliver was not included in Friday's debate because the media outlet that organized it set a polling threshold he did not meet.
“So I will ask Mr. Walker this question," he said to the empty lectern. "You appeared on the debate stage with Sen. Warnock in Savannah two nights ago. I wasn't invited to that debate ... Why do you agree to the only debate that doesn't invite all the candidates?”
Oliver has polled in the low single digits, but it could be enough to force a runoff, as some Republicans have indicated they would support him as a protest vote against Walker but not for Warnock.
“Well, I'm not here to fight a professional wrestling match," Oliver explained as to why he is running. "I'm here to go to work in Washington, D.C., for the people of Georgia. I don't have any interest in partisan bickering. I owe no allegiance to either party. I only owe allegiance to you, the voter.”
His platform includes things like abolishing qualified immunity for some law enforcement and supporting LGBTQ rights, and says the way to tackle climate change is to get the government out of it.
“I think it sounds great to say that we could just magically pass a bill and stop using less carbon and lower the carbon output," he said. "But that's just not the way it's going to work. And when you rely on government to to solve all the problems, that's where you're going get stifled innovation. If government were designing phone chargers, would you be using USB chargers from ten years ago? We would never, ever try to innovate. And so the truth is, is we need to actually get out of the way and let the marketplace innovate.”
This debate did not reveal new policies or platforms for Warnock, but he did use the absence of Walker to launch unanswerable attacks painting him as not equipped nor ready to be a U.S. senator.
“Well, if Mr. Walker were here, I'd ask him about this disturbing history of violence that we've seen from him," Warnock said. "And we're not just talking about one woman, but multiple women. He threatened to kill his ex-wife, put a gun to her head. He's threatened other women. And when asked about that, he really hasn't given account for this kind of violence. And I want to know from him why he thinks he's ready to represent the people of Georgia and if he's ready to face up to this history of violence as he talks about representing us in the Senate.”
It’s unlikely these debates will change voters’ minds, and many did not even watch these faceoffs, but they do serve as a temperature check for where these campaigns are.
The other most consequential debate this week was a rematch four years in the making between incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, who offered two starkly different visions for Georgia’s future.
“I’m so optimistic about the future of our state," Kemp said. "The lowest unemployment rate in the history of the state, the most people working and economic opportunity in all parts of our state, no matter your ZIP code or neighborhood.”
Kemp bested Abrams by about 55,000 votes in 2018, and ever since the former Democratic state house leader has been arguing that Kemp’s leadership and record is out of touch with most Georgians and has left people behind.
“This is a governor who for the last four years has beat his chest but delivered very little for most Georgians," she said. He has weakened gun laws and flooded our streets, he has weakened our privacy rights and women’s rights … the most dangerous thing facing Georgia is four more years of Brian Kemp.”
The debate touched on subjects like education and crime and Georgia’s economic future. One newsworthy moment came when Kemp clarified he would not pursue further restrictions on birth control or abortion despite comments he made about further reproductive restrictions during a secret recording at a campaign event.
“No, that's not my desire to do that," he said. "Georgians should know that my desire is to continue to help them fight the 40-year-high inflation and high gas prices and other things that our Georgia families are facing right now, quite honestly, because of bad policies in Washington, D.C., from President Biden and the Democrats that have complete control.”
The biggest back-and-forth of substance came on the topic of education, a top priority for both Kemp and Abrams. The governor has successfully implemented a $5,000 teacher pay raise and made other changes to help with teacher recruitment.
“You can talk to school superintendents around the state, we have worked with them really over the last year and a half, two years, on learning loss," Kemp said. "We've been working with our superintendents and other education groups. We passed two different pieces of legislation dealing with the teacher pipeline, which is getting more teachers into the system. ... We are funding K-12 education in this state more than we ever have per pupil ever. And that's coming off a recession during the middle of a global pandemic.”
But Abrams argued the state’s record $6.6 billion budget surplus means Georgia should be investing even more in education.
“That's money that we have after we've paid every bill, after we put 15% aside for a rainy day fund, that is money that after we've accounted for increases in population," she said. "And I want to invest it in our children and in our families, beginning with making certain that we have pre-K slots. We have 4-year-olds on a waiting list. I've never met a 4-year-old who waits to turn 5, but we can solve that problem with the money we have right now."
She also touted her plan to raise starting teacher pay to $50,000 and average teacher pay to around $75,000.
"We can make certain that we are increasing access to the pipeline, because teachers aren't in the pipeline because they can't make enough money to take care of themselves and their families," she said. "And that is why under this governor, we have a 67% retention rate. Any other CEO who lost more than 30% of their workforce would be fired.”
The only thing that dominated the debate as much as education was interjections and disruptions from Libertarian Shane Hazel who used the debate to put his beliefs center stage at the expense of the other candidates.
Hazel’s platform included arguing neither major party understands economics and that government should be less involved in most aspects of life.
In fact, during several of the Atlanta Press Club debates, Libertarian candidates disrupted the answers from both major parties, or derailed the conversations, like when secretary of state candidate Ted Metz repeatedly spoke falsehoods about the 2020 election.
Still, Georgia’s elections are so closely divided right now that every person on the debate stage — and those who skipped them altogether — is an important voice for voters to hear from.
Early voting is underway and so far turnout has been breaking records for the midterms, indicating a large number of people in Georgia care about who holds office come January.
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler. Our editor is Josephine Bennett. Our engineer is Jake Cook and Jesse Nighswonger wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.