In Georgia, abortion vote is a possible political turning point

In unison, 20 House Democrats stood and turned their backs on a Republican colleague as he made an emotional and ultimately successful plea to pass one of the strictest abortion bills in the country.

Just minutes before, in that very space, lawmakers from both parties had stood and cheered together the passage of a hate-crimes bill that would add penalties to criminal acts motivated by race, gender or, for the first time, sexual orientation.

That swift change from bipartisanship consensus to partisan rancor capped a dramatic day in the Statehouse. And it could signal a turning point in Georgia politics.

Neither measure is law yet, and both face weeks of debate in the Senate before they could reach Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk. But close observers of politics couldn’t help but see something more: a defining moment that could either help Republicans maintain their edge in Georgia or be a last gasp of GOP control.

That tension could shape next year’s election. Republicans are torn between appeasing the conservative base or backing off red-meat issues to protect vulnerable incumbents. And Democrats want to make the most of the fissure.

The warm-and-fuzzy approach championed by some Republican leaders after narrow victories last year in statewide races — and a wave of legislative defeats in the Atlanta suburbs — has been eclipsed by the demand for sweeping changes by conservatives who fueled GOP victories.

That starts with Kemp, who secured the GOP nomination with partisan promises but tacked toward broader issues, such as teacher pay raises, after narrowly winning a polarizing race for governor.

Then came his unequivocal embrace of the "heartbeat bill" on Thursday shortly before a raw, emotional vote. It helps him keep a campaign vow to pass the nation's toughest abortion rules but also sets the stage for a bruising 2020 race with a focus on social issues that some Republicans would prefer to avoid.

“There will no doubt be a legal battle. And we’re ready for a fight,” Kemp said in an interview. “I have no ill will for people who oppose this, and I understand it. But this is about protecting life, and we’re willing to fight for it.”

The other major player in this unfolding drama is House Speaker David Ralston, who for the past decade has effectively controlled which bills get to the governor's desk and which do not.

A staunch conservative from the mountains of North Georgia, he and then-Gov. Nathan Deal formed an alliance to block some of the most contentious bills involving religious rights or gun expansions over economic, not ideological, purposes.

With Deal gone, Ralston has emerged as a voice — often a lonely one — prophesying troubles ahead if Republicans tilt further toward the party's right flank.

His chamber is in flux. In November, Republican numbers dwindled to 105 — a majority cushion of 15 votes. Seven Republicans scraped by with 52 percent victories, many in Atlanta’s suburbs. And 15 won with less than 55 percent of the vote. More could be imperiled in 2020.

In candid moments away from the Capitol, Ralston is sanguine about what he calls the “cold, hard reality” of the GOP’s future in Georgia. At a political dinner near his hometown of Blue Ridge, he warned of an energized band of “left-wing socialists” — and then castigated fellow Republicans who consider consensus-building or compromise an act of treachery.

“We must focus on those things that we hold in common. And we must never allow anyone to divide us and turn us against ourselves,” he said. “We must respect that we will not always agree on every issue, but a great president said, ‘An 80 percent friend is not a 20 percent enemy.’ ”

‘Political suicide’

Democrats have their own internal turmoil between the ascendant liberal wing and the remaining moderates, and the party has struggled to gain any ground in rural territory where it once dominated.

But the reaction to the "heartbeat bill," which would restrict most abortions after as few as six weeks of pregnancy, led to predictions that Republicans were poised to alienate the middle-of-the-road women they desperately need to win next year's vote.

“That was political suicide. This is desperation all over the place,” said Chrisoula Baikos, an operative with PaveItBlue, the Democratic advocacy group that sprung up in Atlanta’s suburbs shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential victory with a mission to run liberal candidates in local races long ignored by Democrats.

“They’re going to keep digging their heels in. And they’re going to hurt themselves in the end — which is fine with me,” Baikos said. “Be careful what you wish for, boys.”

That vote was excruciating, even traumatizing, for lawmakers on both sides of the divide.

After turning their backs on state Rep. Ed Setzler, the Republican who introduced it, a half-dozen Democrats grew so visibly upset they walked out to compose themselves. One opponent after another gave deeply personal testimony calling for its defeat, some recounting their own decisions to have abortions. By the next day, Setzler had drawn a Democratic challenger.

"This is about not trusting women. We don't do this to men — we don't pass condescending bills to say to men they're not qualified to make their own decisions," state Rep. Renitta Shannon said. "That's what this says, and women know that."

As lawmakers tallied votes, there were audible gasps in the halls of the Statehouse. A large, pink-clad contingent from Planned Parenthood waited deep into the night in the Capitol Rotunda, long after the vote, serenading each lawmaker who voted against the measure with cheers and applause that echoed through the emptying building.

The next day, five women wearing white bonnets and stark-red dresses resembling characters from "The Handmaid's Tale," the book and TV series about women forced into sexual slavery, stood in silent vigil on the Statehouse steps. One held a hanger, an infamous tool of self-induced abortions that has also become a symbol of opposition to the bill.

It was the type of vote that moderate Republicans hoped to avoid to protect the most vulnerable members of their ranks. One of them is state Rep. Deborah Silcox, one of the last remaining Republican lawmakers from Atlanta's close-in suburbs.

Silcox delivered a tearful rebuke to the bill and offered a prayer that it would fail. It did not, passing by a 93-73 vote, just clearing the necessary threshold of 91 votes.

“I have heard from thousands of people in the state, and in my district, thousands of women, and obstetricians, who don’t want to be criminalized in this state for what they do,” Silcox said, pausing to compose herself. “I was sent here by them.”

Another glum Republican, who reluctantly voted for it, was spotted outside the Capitol after midnight. Asked whether he was returning to his far-flung district for a few hours of sleep, he said, half-jokingly: “I don’t know if they’ll have me anymore.”

To other conservatives, there was nothing sour about the night. Kemp, for one, sees himself as duty-bound to pursue the restrictions after winning more votes than any gubernatorial candidate in state history by unapologetically embracing conservative stances.

In the interview, he said he would still fight to fulfill those pledges while mixing in less partisan pursuits, such as a new approach to fighting high HIV infection rates in Georgia and an overhaul of the foster care system.

“Sometimes, you have to be careful about trying to do too much and risking not getting anything done,” he said. “I’m going to be smart about picking my battles. We have three more years to work on this, this term.”

Wedge issues

The anti-abortion legislation overshadowed a string of victories from the more moderate wing of the Republican Party.

Legislation to allow the cultivation of medical marijuana passed with such a giant majority that Kemp quipped that even if he opposed the bill it might not matter. A “religious liberty” measure was effectively scuttled, sidelined by its own sponsor after failing to drum up enough support.

Campaign pledges to expand gun rights and crack down on illegal immigration haven't gained much traction. And after years of failures, Georgia lawmakers narrowly approved hate-crime legislation that would add stiffer penalties for convicted criminals motivated by bias.

It was authored by Republican state Rep. Chuck Efstration, who is at ground zero of Georgia's seismic political shifts. A former aide to Kemp, Efstration has had such a strong hold on his Gwinnett County district that no Democrat bothered to challenge him his first three elections.

That changed in November, when he won another term by less than 2,000 votes — such shaky ground that he briefly struck a deal with a neighboring Democrat to redraw the district lines before it was abandoned in a storm of criticism.

It was Efstration, an ex-prosecutor, who shepherded the bill through a vote in the House — the first time either chamber in the Georgia Legislature has recognized sexual orientation as a protected class of citizenry since the initial law was struck down in 2004.

“This isn’t about politics. I am a Christian, and I believe that all of God’s children deserve to live in peace,” Efstration said. “This hate-crimes bill is unlikely to pass the state Senate, but I’m still proud of the message sent by the Georgia House.”

It was also the first time that hate-crimes legislation has been approved by the chamber since 2000. It passed back then on the heels of a wrenching speech on tolerance given by Dan Ponder Jr. of Donalsonville, then a GOP lawmaker retiring as his party was on the cusp of a historic rise. Ponder returned to the House gallery Thursday to cheer as it passed again.

Eric Johnson was a central part of that Republican resurgence, helping to speed the demise of an uneasy Democratic coalition of rural conservatives and urban liberals by pushing a mix of tax cuts and social issues.

“The way we won was that we wedged the conservative rural Democrats with the urban liberal faction,” said Johnson, the top Republican in the state Senate during that era of change.

Nowadays, he sees the same threat to Republicans who could be on the brink of a decline, this time because of a deepening rift between social conservatives and moderates.

“We tend to eat our young and care more about issues than power. They need to support each other,” he said. “It’s a tough balance, but neither faction will be happy with the alternative.”