A closer look: Why Georgia’s anti-abortion law is ‘just the beginning’

Gov. Brian Kemp occupied an unusual spot when the array of lawmakers and activists took command of the stately desk in his office. Far from the center of attention, he was almost hard to find until it came time to sign the "heartbeat" bill into law.

Maybe it was a desire to share the spotlight with conservative allies or a sage lesson in showmanship learned from other abortion-related events that featured too many men and too few women.

But he may as well have been front and center for the entire ceremony. Even before he used one of the 20 royal-blue pens to jot his name on the anti-abortion legislation, it was Kemp's signature accomplishment of this year's legislative session. He endorsed it, championed it, lobbied lawmakers to support it and on Tuesday put his name on it.

Love it or hate it, Kemp owns House Bill 481. And it signals more than a shift toward culturally conservative policies avoided by his immediate predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal. It shows that he believes future elections in Georgia will be more about mobilizing the party's base than appealing to the center.

ExplorePhotos: Gov. Kemp signs anti-abortion ‘heartbeat’ bill

Abortion rights groups vow payback as Kemp preps to sign ‘heartbeat’ bill

That was Kemp's strategy in the 2018 election, when he soaked up as many conservative votes as he could in rural Georgia but got beat up in the burbs. He followed that narrow victory with a gift to his base -- legislation that outlaws most abortions as early as six weeks.

Though supporters shed tears Tuesday as Kemp put pen to paper, there was no suspense in the air. That was by design. Kemp left no mystery that he would sign the measure.

Each time he's asked about the drawn-out legal battle it will spawn, or the threats of economic blowback, Kemp says he simply did what he promised to voters – never mind the political fallout.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

'We warned you’

The truth, however, is more complicated. Kemp made a lot of promises that he hasn't yet kept. A cap on state spending. A vast rewrite of gun laws to allow firearms in more places. A crackdown on illegal immigration. A brand-new "religious liberty" law.

Each of those measures, promised in the throes of a crowded Republican primary, may surface before he stands for another term in November 2022. But it was the abortion proposal that Kemp circled, intent on quickly granting conservatives a top priority on their wish list.

That the focus on the "heartbeat" bill outshone the attention on other items on his first-year agenda, such as restoring his powers to seek more federal health care dollars or expanding the medical marijuana program, seemed not to bother Kemp.

Even at events before bipartisan crowds, where bypassing mention of a divisive issue seemed like a good idea, the governor would tout how he “stood up for our values and protected life.”

Democrats view Kemp’s strategy as a last gasp that will surely make him a short-timer. Before the ink was even dry on the law, his critics gathered outside the Capitol with promises to block the legislation in the courts and leverage anger at the GOP into more Democratic victories.

“A death warrant has just been signed by Governor Kemp for all women of Georgia,” said state Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, in one of the edgier critiques of the Republican.

"We warned you," said Staci Fox, the head of Planned Parenthood's Atlanta branch, as her group unveiled a new six-figure campaign targeting Republican incumbents.

Conservatives plan their own defense that promises battalions of door-knocking and phone-ringing volunteers ahead of 2020, eager to preserve the 15-vote GOP majority in the House that Kemp relies upon.

Kemp will be the focus of the dueling efforts, the center of a swirling tug of war over his agenda that will help shape the 2020 election and set the stage for what could be a 2022 rematch against Stacey Abrams.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

'Nonpartisan’

That Kemp’s political fortunes could be shaped by legislation he didn’t initially endorse, at least not publicly, is not lost on his supporters.

See, early on, Kemp seemed to try to defuse a push for strict abortion rules by supporting a watered-down "trigger" measure that would have outlawed abortion in Georgia – but only if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade first.

It seemed like an expedient political path, giving the governor an avenue to say he was upholding a campaign pledge to enact tough abortion restrictions while leaving it to nine justices in Washington to make the first move.

Now, Georgia is the one plunging ahead, along with a handful of other states that have adopted similar laws. To hear Kemp's allies tell it, supporting the "heartbeat" bill was the route the governor favored all along but could only take once it had enough legislative support.

That sign came when the measure survived a House committee vote, leading Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan to come out in favor of it. House Speaker David Ralston, the more reluctant partner in this complicated dance, later endorsed it as well.

It narrowly passed each vote, and an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed why it was so close: The electorate was neatly divided, with 49% opposing the law and 44% in favor. 

At Tuesday’s signing ceremony, the stakes were clear, even if politicians insisted the measure was a “commonsense” and “nonpartisan” attempt.

Vulnerable Republicans are being targeted in 2020 whether they voted for the measure or not. Kemp is betting that conservatives will rally behind him and his agenda, even if those policies cost the GOP seats and votes in more moderate areas.

After emerging from the edge of the crowd and making the short walk to his desk, Kemp told the waiting cameras that his job “is to do what’s right, not what is easy.”

After all, he said, there was more to come.

“Remember, today is just the beginning.”