They sparred over healthcare, over allegiance to President Donald Trump, even over stream buffer rules.
And when the dust settled, the first televised debate between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp pointed to even sharper clashes to come over the next two weeks.
Cagle took nearly every opportunity to swing at Kemp during the hourlong event at Columbus State University, swiping him over his office’s disclosure of confidential voter data and claimed he supported a “Kempcare” expansion of healthcare.
“My opponent, sadly enough, does not have a record by which he can run on that is going to be successful in November – that’s a major issue,” said Cagle.
Kemp pounded back, depicting Cagle as a “Pinocchio” who couldn’t keep his facts straight while spouting “nonsense.” He invoked the secret recording of Cagle admitting he backed “bad public policy” to undercut a rival, and painted him as a ruthless insider.
“He has been falsely attacking me on all these issues that quite honestly are false,” Kemp said. “He knows better than that and it's wrong. Certainly, the state deserves better.”
Though he’s been the front-runner since he got into the race a year ago, Cagle has long since abandoned an above-the-fray strategy. In the primary, he and his campaign targeted Hunter Hill because he preferred to face Kemp in the runoff.
The secretary of state, though, has proven to be a tougher challenge than Cagle’s campaign may have expected. And tightening polls suggest Kemp has been buoyed by the secret recording and his relentless efforts to outflank his opponent on the right.
The post-Independence Day showdown, which you can view here, was the first of a series of televised debates. The Atlanta Press Club hosts a Thursday showdown featuring the two candidates. And on July 15, Channel 2 Action News will televise the final head-to-head debate between the GOP hopefuls.
The winner of the July 24 runoff faces Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former House minority leader, in November.
Here are a few other highlights:
Cannabis foil: One of the muddiest policy differences between the two candidates involved the state’s medical marijuana program. Both Cagle and Kemp have previously opposed legislation allowing cannabis to be grown in the state, saying it should be up to Congress to decide.
But they had differing views on how to expand the state’s existing program, which allows residents suffering from certain illnesses to receive cannabis oil but requires them to rely on benefactors or trek themselves to states where the drug can be legally grown.
At the debate, Cagle said he’s seen the success of the program and that he’ll “be at the table” for negotiations about an expansion. But he said he wants the state medical board to play a bigger role in deciding which illnesses are covered to take “politics out of it.”
Kemp, too, said he’s supportive of the program but that there needs to be more clinical trials to test its effectiveness. He said “there’s really no medical data, not much of it, that actually proves from a medical standpoint, from a physician’s standpoint, what’s actually working or not.”
State Rep. Allen Peake, the godfather of the program, wants more: he said he’s looking for which candidate will “publicly commit to solve the huge medical cannabis access issue with an in-state cultivation solution that works.”
Let’s pull apart this quote from Cagle: “If you want an individual who is just like President Trump and also like Gov. Deal, and says what he means and gets things done, then I am your candidate.”
It’s part of a narrative he’s pushed since the May primary that tries to tie himself to Georgia’s two most popular Republican politicians. But it’s also an incongruous one: The under-stated governor and the bombastic president share almost no similarities aside from a political party.
‘Bad public policy.’ Kemp’s first runoff TV ad didn’t really invoke the secret recording beyond a mention of a “corruption scandal.” But his first runoff debate, he made clear he was going to try to leverage the audio.
Kemp nodded toward the audio several times during the hour, and seized on it during his closing:
“My opponent has shown on these tapes that he will put politics ahead of policy. We need a governor that will put Georgians first ahead of the special interest, the status quo, the politically correct and those that are here illegally. And that is why we have surged in this campaign.”