This story was updated at 1 p.m.
The candidates battling to represent a pair of competitive congressional seats in the north Atlanta suburbs sharpened their attacks in debate performances Tuesday as voters turned out in record numbers in the first week of early voting.
U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Marietta is in a rematch with former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel of Roswell, who lost the seat two years by a little more than 3,000 votes. In the neighboring district, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux is hoping to claim the office she nearly won in 2018, when U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall narrowly beat her. Rich McCormick is the Republican in the race now, taking the place of Woodall who decided not to seek reelection.
The two races are among the most closely watched in the country, with Democrats hoping to maintain – and maybe even increase – their control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Handel framed McBath as a pawn of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and called her a “one-issue activist,” a reference to McBath’s gun control advocacy that grew out of her son’s murder.
McBath responded by highlighting Handel’s support for President Donald Trump’s agenda. And she cited her work on protections for veterans that drew broad support – and was signed by Trump – as evidence of her bipartisan work in Washington and reason to send her back for another term.
“There’s a lot of negativity and partisanship in America right now and that’s exactly what I’m running against,” McBath said.
The two clashed over abortion rights, GOP efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the federal response to the pandemic and the handling of the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.
McBath asked Handel whether she was trying to hide her work for the Georgia Life Alliance, an anti-abortion group that McBath called “radical.”
Handel said she provides business strategy services for the organization and called the question “ridiculous.” Both tried to frame the other as being extreme on the divisive issue.
“It’s no secret I’m pro-life,” Handel said. “But that’s a really emotional and personal issue for everyone, and there’s very different opinions.”
McBath said “voters cannot trust you to stand up for a woman’s right to choose” and criticized Handel’s support of a measure that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks and impose fines or jail time on providers.
Bourdeaux and McCormick, meanwhile, diverged on a controversial federal program that deputizes local law enforcement to assist with immigration enforcement, and they also sparred over COVID-19 safety precautions and the federal response to the pandemic.
McCormick said he supports the 287(g) program as a way to target criminals. Eight law enforcement agencies in Georgia participate in the program, including the 7th District’s Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office. Bourdeaux said the program should be eliminated, saying it discourages members of the Hispanic community from reporting crime.
With the pandemic, Bourdeaux said national leaders should first focus on controlling the virus so businesses and schools can safely reopen. McCormick opposed continuing the enhanced unemployment benefit as structured – saying it discouraged people from returning to work – and blamed Democrats for the failed negotiations on another round of federal relief.
Bourdeaux accused McCormick of downplaying the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and criticized her opponent for sometimes going maskless at events.
“I’m an emergency medicine physician,” said McCormick, who is also a Marine veteran. “I’m the one that put my life on the line by going to work during this pandemic and not quitting and taking time off to do this campaign.”
“One of the reasons it is so shocking to me that you continue to downplay the virus is you see the frontline impact of it,” said Bourdeaux, who is a professor of public administration and policy at Georgia State University who spent a few years as the Georgia Senate’s budget director, which is a nonpartisan role.
Both candidates lives in Suwanee but are running very different campaigns, offering voters a stark contrast.
McCormick is running as a small government conservative who wants to further reduce regulation on business. Bourdeaux, meanwhile, has put health care at the center of her campaign. She has criticized GOP efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act and often cites the 120,000 people who lack health insurance in the district, calling it “morally wrong” and “fiscally irresponsible.”
The candidate debates were part of the Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk-Young series on Georgia Public Broadcasting. The replay of the 6th Congressional District debate can be watched here. The 7th Congressional District video can be found here. The series will continue next Monday with the candidates in the special U.S. Senate election. All of the videos will be posted to the club’s Facebook page.