Demonstrators who support and oppose abortion rights sit in the lobby at the Capitol in March as members of the Senate debate House Bill 481, now the state’s new anti-abortion “heartbeat” law. The polarizing issue has not triggered the kind of response from Georgia’s corporate powers that they have shown when other controversial legislation was considered. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s anti-abortion ‘heartbeat’ law pulses through 2020 fundraising

The email warned that the legislator was in the crosshairs of Republicans for opposing the anti-abortion bill that has rocked Georgia politics, and it invited donors to a fundraiser to give $481 contributions “in honor of our fight against” House Bill 481.

Several of Democratic state Rep. Mike Wilensky’s supporters came to a Sandy Springs mansion with donations in hand, and a message to send, as they listened to actor Ric Reitz outline his fears that the new abortion restrictions will gut Georgia’s film industry.

That kind of fundraising has spilled over into conservative coffers, too, though some Republicans are deliberately not raising money on the issue. Joshua Edmonds of the Georgia Life Alliance said that anti-abortion causes are enjoying unprecedented interest from donors and volunteers that will pay dividends in 2020, when every legislative seat will be up for election.

“It speaks volumes that the pro-life community overwhelmingly supports this bill and the lawmakers who voted for it,” he said, “and they’re mobilized to defend it.”

It’s impossible to pinpoint how the new law, which seeks to ban most abortions as early as six weeks, will influence next year’s election. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the most recent fundraising figures offers a glimpse of the issue’s political potency.

Some donors dipped deeper into their wallets in support or defiance of lawmakers who embraced the bill. Anti-abortion groups report an uptick in contributions and volunteers. Abortion rights supporters touted donations from megawatt stars. Candidates in competitive districts reported big hauls.

“It’s going to be absolutely helpful to fundraising,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat and outspoken opponent of the measure. “People see how important it is to have a strong voice represent their values in the state Legislature. And they see how extreme the legislation is.”

The amount of energy and enthusiasm surrounding the law, which is now tied up in what could be a lengthy court battle, has also sparked a backlash. Some candidates are taking pains to avoid appearing like they’re cashing in on the issue.

Democratic state Sen. Zahra Karinshak, who raised $75,000 over the past three months in her Gwinnett County-based district, said her vote against the abortion law “certainly didn’t hurt” her fundraising, but that she also earned contributions for her positions on health care and veterans’ rights.

And state Sen. Renee Unterman, the Republican sponsor of the measure in the state’s upper chamber, is not highlighting her stewardship of the anti-abortion law as she runs for one of the most competitive U.S. House seats in the nation.

“I’ve watched Democrats be very crass about raising money off the bill, and Republicans haven’t been as aggressive,” said Unterman, one of several contenders competing for the 7th District GOP nomination. “I’m a multidimensional candidate, and the heartbeat bill is one part of my record. My donors aren’t giving to me based off one issue.”

‘Speaks volumes’

Whatever the reason, they are giving. The AJC review of thousands of financial records found that the amount of donations to state politicians and political action committees shot up by $200,000 the week after the bill was signed into law compared with the previous seven days.

Some of the most prominent figures in the clash over the bill had the strongest fundraising quarters. State Sen. Jen Jordan, whose speech opposing the measure went viral on social media, took in about $74,000 since the legislative session ended — including about $4,500 the day HB 481 was signed.

Other Democrats used their campaign accounts in symbolic fashion: Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson didn’t collect a single dime — he recently announced he would not seek another term — but gave thousands of dollars of his campaign funds to abortion rights organizations.

Those groups are also netting bigger fish. Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health organization, received a $250,000 contribution from Ariana Grande after a June concert in Atlanta. Hollywood producers J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele both wrote hefty checks to the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading the legal fight against the law.

And the Fair Fight Action voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams, the runner-up in last year’s gubernatorial race, sent a flurry of fundraising emails that quickly amassed $110,000. That money was divvied up in $10,000 increments to 11 abortion rights organizations.

Anti-abortion causes say they welcome the celebrity attention, hopeful that it will backfire by energizing more Georgia Republicans. Gov. Brian Kemp raised more than $200,000 the week before he signed the law. Much of the money came from corporate lobbyists and business boosters, but some came from small-dollar donors.

“I’ve got no problem with him on abortion, and our views are very close on social issues,” said Russell Wilder, the owner of a tobacco store in Martinez who stroked Kemp a $100 check. “He’s a regular guy even though he’s the governor — he gets us. We’re from Georgia, not Atlanta.”

There’s more where that came from, said Cole Muzio, an anti-abortion activist. He said the “radical, pro-abortion forces from California and New York” will spur more donations through November 2020 — and he scattered a few hundred dollars to several Republicans over the past few weeks to emphasize his point.

‘Sickened’

One of the contributions went to state Rep. Ed Setzler, the Acworth Republican who authored the measure and made it a point not to seek donations over the past three months. It’s not that he doesn’t need them: After running unopposed for three consecutive races, Setzler narrowly won another term last year and is preparing for a tough race next year.

But Setzler wore the $265 he received since April as a badge of honor, writing in a campaign filing that he was “sickened” to see efforts to raise campaign cash on the issue.

“This is such a serious issue, and the other side was so engaged in national fundraising that I am willing to spot them 90 days in fundraising,” Setzler said in an interview. “I want folks to understand the substance of this issue and the dignity of the children we’re seeking to protect. It’s not only what we do, but the way we do it, that matters.”

The people gathered at Wilensky’s fundraiser would have a different take. They mingled in a two-story living room ringed by delicate antiques and family portraits before Reitz, the veteran actor, stood before a marble fireplace to urge the crowd to pull out their checkbooks. The room around him nodded in agreement.

“Nothing is more fundamental to our individual right to freedom than the right to bodily autonomy,” said Valerie Habif, a retired psychologist and Democratic donor. “Now is the time for women to exercise our very hard-won right to vote.”

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