Democratic Presidential Candidates Touch On Georgia Issues In Atlanta Debate

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, speaks before Wednesday’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta. Lewis was just one of the Georgia politicians in the audience. Georgia made subtle appearances throughout the debate.

John Bazemore / Associated Press

Ten candidates took the stage at southwest Atlanta’s Tyler Perry Studios Wednesday night after a marathon day of impeachment hearings.

This is the first time a Democratic presidential debate has made it to Georgia since 1992, and the state made subtle appearances throughout the event co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post. 

The most prominent Georgia presence? The audience, which was full of Democratic state lawmakers and politicians. 

Georgia Congressman John Lewis and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams addressed the audience inside the debate hall prior to the candidates taking the stage. 

Lewis was referenced by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker in his closing statement. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard referenced another Georgian, Martin Luther King Jr., in hers.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms greeted former Vice President Joe Biden before the debate and spoke on his behalf afterward. Bottoms is one of the highest-profile Georgia Democrats to endorse a candidate and has campaigned repeatedly for Biden.

“I thought tonight was so important for the South in general, and I think it really speaks to the fact that people really see that Georgia is in play,” Bottoms said to media after the debate.

“And I thought that as the vice president he was able to showcase where he’s been for so many years on the world stage. And it’s increasingly important that people remember that and recognize that his leadership and stability is what we need now.”

Democratic candidates at debate in Atlanta
Democratic presidential candidates, from left, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, former technology executive Andrew Yang and investor Tom Steyer wave to the audience before Wednesday’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta. (John Amis/Associated Press)

“What we know is that Georgia is on everyone’s mind,” former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said before the debate. “We are a battleground state, because we in a decade have closed the gap in a presidential race from eight points to five points in 2016, to my race [with] 1.4 points. What that means is with actual real investment at the presidential level, Georgia is a winnable state.”

Abrams’ failed bid for the governor’s mansion was referenced multiple times by candidates on stage, who claimed Abrams would be governor if voting policies were different, what’s become a commonplace Georgia Democratic talking point.

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was one of those. She mentioned it in the context of her proposal to automatically register all 18-year-olds to vote, a policy platform she released this week in Atlanta.

“If we did something like this, if we did something about gerrymandering, and we did something about voter purges and we did something significant of making sure that we don’t have money in politics from the outside, Stacey Abrams would be governor of this state right now,” Klobuchar said to applause from the audience. 

 “Right here in this great state of Georgia, it was the voter suppression, particularly of African American communities that prevented us from having a Gov. Stacey Abrams right now,” Booker added.

He went on to reference House Bill 481, Georgia’s anti-abortion law, which effectively bans abortion from when cardiac activity is detected in the womb, at roughly six weeks.

“This bill is the result of voter suppression,” Booker said.

Gov. Brian Kemp, the former Georgia secretary of state, has repeatedly denied any allegations of voter suppression. 

Meanwhile Klobuchar says she would work to codify Roe v. Wade into law. She says President Donald Trump campaigned on overturning the landmark Supreme Court decision.

“So, no surprise that we’re seeing these kinds of laws in Georgia and Alabama, where his allies are passing these bills,” Klobuchar said. “And what we have to remember is that the people are with us.”

Klobuchar cited polling that showed a majority of Georgians supported Roe v. Wade.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he expects his party’s policy proposals to play well in Georgia in 2020.

“Talking about how we make Georgia and America work for every Georgian and every American,” Perez said. “That’s how we win. And I have a lot of optimism here. I wouldn’t have a debate here if I didn’t think we could win in Georgia.”