Libertarian Hazel stirred the pot at Georgia gubernatorial debate. But could he trigger a runoff between Kemp and Abrams?

Third-party candidates are unlikely to win contests such as Georgia's gubernatorial election, but they can trigger runoffs, dragging out the election and giving the frontrunner with fewer votes a second chance

Atlanta Press Club Georgia Governor Debate 2022
Democrat Stacey Abrams, Libertarian Shane Hazel, and Republican Brian Kemp participated in Monday’s Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate.

Photograph by Ben Gray/AP

Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Democratic gubernatorial challenger Stacey Abrams mostly played the hits at the Atlanta Press Club’s candidate debate Monday night, sparring over abortion access, gun laws, education, and the economy. Meanwhile, Libertarian Shane Hazel grumbled and muttered under his breath complaints that the moderators weren’t affording him enough of the spotlight.

Kemp touted backing from law enforcement groups across the state and accused Abrams of seeking to defund the police. Abrams called that claim bogus, saying she just wants to reform public safety departments in ways that better protect minorities from abuse. They both want to crack down on violent crime, but where Abrams thinks that can be accomplished in part with gun control, Kemp said officials can circumvent the need for firearm restrictions by instead “going after the people who are doing these gun-related crimes”—or jailing gang members.

Hazel, a businessman who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2020 and Congress in 2018, said Monday he wants to do away with gun laws and proposed legalizing cannabis and psilocybin (the psychoactive chemical in some fungi) to help treat mental health issues. He also wants to abolish taxation (it’s “theft,” he said), privatize Georgia’s education system, and effectively tamp down the government’s role in governing across the board.

Addressing his competitors at times as just “Brian” and “Stacey,” and angling for attention by interjecting at practically every lull in conversation—and when his opponents were speaking—Hazel came across as “belligerent,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Patricia Murphy tweeted after the debate. But his bid for the state’s highest office isn’t inconsequential.

Atlanta Press Club Georgia Governor Debate 2022
Democrat Stacey Abrams, Libertarian Shane Hazel, and Republican Brian Kemp participated in Monday’s Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate.

Photograph by Ben Gray/AP

Although polls indicate a Hazel victory is a statistical impossibility, his presence on the ballot teases the chance of a runoff election between Kemp, the presumptive frontrunner, and Abrams, which would, by theoretically preventing either from securing more than 50 percent of the final tally, drag the race out until December 6. But if or how the Libertarian vote could ultimately tip the scales, after Hazel is knocked out, in one of the two top contenders’ favor is anyone’s guess—especially considering his polarizing, hardline stances on nearly every policy issue.

In November 2020, Hazel seized 2.3 percent of the U.S. Senate race vote, stopping top vote-getter David Perdue, a Republican, from outright beating Jon Ossoff, his Democratic opponent. Ossoff went on to win the ensuing runoff election—a testament to the power of a wildcard candidate’s supporters in the wake of a third-party defeat (or, at least, the power of holding a second challenge between the frontrunners).

By stirring the pot Monday, Hazel turned up the temperature in an already tense faceoff between Abrams and Kemp. He asked the incumbent governor if he’d like to “say sorry” to Georgians for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, chastising Kemp for shuttering businesses during the early days of the public health crisis and then, peddling a conspiracy theory about vaccines killing people, accusing the governor of forcing shots on his constituents.

Hazel also professed to be the only participant Monday night who understands economics. Asked by Abrams whether he’s concerned about the supposed prevalence of Chinese Communist Party interest and investment in Georgia farmland, Hazel proposed the state adopt a cryptocurrency as its primary means for monetary transaction—which he said would somehow help keep Chinese money out of Georgia’s agriculture industry.

When Hazel ultimately loses, if he’s able to keep enough votes for himself to force a runoff, he won’t back either Kemp or Abrams, he said Monday. Aside from bringing attention to Libertarianism, though, it’s unclear what he hopes to achieve with his campaign.

As the debate wound down just before 8 p.m. and Hazel rambled during his closing statement, running the clock yet again, the debate hosts cut his mic.

Watch the full debate below: