National News

Final Debate in Georgia Governor’s Race Canceled as Republican Breaks Schedule

Posted October 31, 2018 9:55 p.m. EDT
Updated October 31, 2018 10:00 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA — Plans for the final debate of Georgia’s raucous race for governor collapsed Wednesday after the Republican nominee, Brian Kemp, abandoned the forum’s long-scheduled timing so he could campaign alongside President Donald Trump this weekend.

Kemp had been expected to meet Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate, in a Sunday evening debate that was announced in September and was to be broadcast live. But Kemp backed away from the 5 p.m. debate in Atlanta after Trump’s campaign set a rally in Macon, about 100 miles to the southeast, for 4 p.m.

The upending of the debate calendar set off an hourslong quarrel that seemed likely to reverberate and resurface through the final days of an election cycle that was already acrimonious. By the time trick-or-treaters were knocking on doors Wednesday evening, Kemp had agreed to a different time for the debate — 7:30 p.m. Monday, the night before the election — but Abrams’ campaign balked at altering the terms of a debate that were set more than seven weeks ago.

“We believe it would be irresponsible to break our commitment to accommodate his failures,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager, said in a statement Wednesday night. “We refuse to callously take Georgians for granted and cancel on them. Just because Brian Kemp breaks his promises doesn’t mean anyone else should.”

Groh-Wargo said that Abrams was scheduled to be in southeastern Georgia on Monday evening and that Abrams would “talk with and answer questions from Georgians” at the same hour the debate was set for Sunday.

Before Abrams’ campaign made its final decision, Kemp tried to shift blame to the Democratic nominee. A spokesman, Ryan Mahoney, said that the Republican’s campaign had “offered multiple days, times and venues to debate” and accused Abrams of “ducking Georgia voters because she can’t defend her extreme, radical agenda on live television.”

Sunday’s debate had been planned since mid-September, and Abrams and Kemp appeared on television together last week.

WSB-TV, the Atlanta station that was organizing this weekend’s now-canceled showdown, said Wednesday that Kemp’s campaign had told it of the need to reschedule “within the past 24 hours,” but that it would accommodate a new time if Abrams, Kemp and Ted Metz, the Libertarian candidate, could come to terms.

Within hours, it became clear that Abrams, a former Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, and Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state, had shared the stage for the last time before Tuesday’s balloting.

“We regret that we had to cancel, but once Secretary Kemp pulled out at the last minute, the candidates could not agree to a new time,” Misti Turnbull, WSB’s news director, said in a statement.

Yet even as Democrats attacked Kemp’s effort to change the debate schedule, there was also a sense in Georgia that the political benefits of an appearance with Trump could prove greater for Kemp than the consequences of abandoning another televised exchange featuring the candidates.

Although the president is not as popular in Georgia as he is in some other parts of the South, Kemp owes much of his ascendance this year to Trump, who offered his endorsement over the summer while Kemp was jockeying for his party’s nomination. Trump’s support helped Kemp gallop to a 38-point victory in the Republican runoff, where he defeated Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who had raised far more money and had the backing of the retiring Republican governor.

Metz, the Libertarian candidate, said Wednesday afternoon that Kemp’s efforts to reschedule in the face of Trump’s calendar amounted to “an example of how Brian Kemp has always behaved when it comes to bigger opportunities.”

Recent polls suggest that Abrams and Kemp are essentially tied and that the contest might move to a December runoff. Both candidates, hoping to win outright Tuesday, are hosting some of their party’s most prominent figures in the coming days: Vice President Mike Pence will make three stops in the state Thursday, when Oprah Winfrey is scheduled to campaign with Abrams in metro Atlanta. Former President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Atlanta on Friday, two days before Trump’s trip to Macon.

According to GeorgiaVotes.com, an independent website that uses state data to track and compare voter turnout statistics, more than 1.5 million people have already cast early ballots in Georgia, nearly triple the number at the same point in 2014.