Abortion ruling could pose risks for Georgia Republicans

Abortion rights activists marched from the Georgia Capitol to Underground Atlanta on Friday, June 24, 2022. The protest follows the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Abortion rights activists marched from the Georgia Capitol to Underground Atlanta on Friday, June 24, 2022. The protest follows the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Georgia Democrats have struggled to counter mounting concerns about high inflation and rising energy prices as November approaches. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling eliminating the constitutional right to abortion presents them with a chance to remake the political narrative.

At large weekend protests and campaign trail stops, Democrats promised the ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade would upend midterm elections that Republicans have framed as a referendum on President Joe Biden’s economic record.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, up for a full six-year term, urged a Valdosta audience not to “give in to despair” by retreating from political activity. Stacey Abrams, Gov. Brian Kemp’s challenger, said Republicans want to strip away fundamental freedoms: “If you’re a woman in Georgia, you should be terrified right now.”

Democrats hope to channel the anger over the ruling to rebuild the fragile coalition that powered the party’s 2020 victories, a disparate group that includes disenchanted independent voters in danger of flipping to the GOP without Donald Trump on the ballot.

“I expect this to unify Democrats who saw this coming — and Republican suburban women who now see that the Georgia GOP’s lurch to the far right will come for their families, too,” said Esther Panitch, the Democratic nominee for a Sandy Springs-based House seat.

There’s another side to that coin, of course. The ruling could energize conservatives who see it as vindication of the GOP’s generational quest to refashion the judiciary. And regardless of the fallout, Republicans will continue a relentless strategy to tie their rivals to Biden and his sinking approval ratings.

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Abortion rights activists gather at the Georgia State Capital Saturday, June 25, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Abortion rights activists gather at the Georgia State Capital Saturday, June 25, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Abortion rights activists gather at the Georgia State Capital Saturday, June 25, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“Democrats are desperate to make the November elections about anything other than record inflation, crippling gas prices and a sputtering economy. It won’t work,” said Ryan Mahoney, a GOP strategist who counseled Kemp’s 2018 campaign.

“Voters will cast ballots with their bank account — not the Supreme Court — in mind.”

‘No more excuses’

What remains uncertain is whether Democrats can harness the outrage to woo swing voters, particularly women, who have been more focused on economic issues. Even Trump has apparently privately worried that the decision could be “bad for Republicans” by angering female voters in the suburbs.

“The court’s decision will mobilize progressives, traditional Democrats and perhaps moderate Republican women,” said Audrey Haynes, a University of Georgia political scientist.

“Abortion now doesn’t have the urgency that it did for decades for Republicans. For Democrats, though, it will be front and center.”

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A person looks at materials at the National Right to Life booth at the National Right to Life Convention at the Airport Marriott Hotel in Atlanta on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A person looks at materials at the National Right to Life booth at the National Right to Life Convention at the Airport Marriott Hotel in Atlanta on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
A person looks at materials at the National Right to Life booth at the National Right to Life Convention at the Airport Marriott Hotel in Atlanta on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Republicans acknowledge the ruling could imperil the party’s political momentum, particularly given public support for abortion rights.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed nearly seven out of 10 Georgia voters opposed overturning Roe, including about 43% of Republican respondents.

And even a small change in voting patterns could be decisive in a state that narrowly voted for Biden in 2020 and gave Warnock and Jon Ossoff slim victories over Republican incumbents in the 2021 runoffs.

Jen Talaber Ryan, a Republican strategist who was an aide to former Gov. Nathan Deal, said GOP candidates will be challenged to cut through the “headlines and hysteria” and focus on the party’s interpretation of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Republicans have an opportunity to educate voters on what the Roe decision actually means — democracy returning to the people and their ability to determine their own state law.”

Already, there are signs in Georgia of increased mobilization. In search of a meaningful way to respond to the ruling, Kaitlyn Wetzel quickly arranged a protest march Saturday in her hometown of Carrollton.

“I have a lot of emotions right now. Disappointment is a big one. I’m very disappointed in the leaders of this country,” said Wetzel. “There should be no shame in taking care of your own body and there should be no lifelong repercussions for a one-night stand.”

Activists on the other side of the abortion debate have also vowed to mobilize. Abigail Darnell of the anti-abortion Georgia Right to Life group said abortion opponents will demand at the ballot box that politicians take more aggressive steps.

“It’s time for abortion to end. We need elected officials in Georgia to have the courage to end abortion, criminalize abortion once and for all,” she said. “We need Governor Kemp and our elected officials to end abortion now. No more excuses.”

‘Keep pushing forward’

Kemp, who hailed the ruling as a “historic victory for life,” will indeed face increased pressure from conservatives to take more strident action, such as an outright ban on abortions. It’s an issue Kemp, the state’s first lifelong Republican to become governor, wrestled over after a campaign that promised to enact sweeping new restrictions.

During his 2018 run for office, Kemp said he’d ban all abortion except when the life of the mother is at stake. After he was elected, he took a different path by signing a law that restricts abortions as early as six weeks — before many women know they’re pregnant.

The legislation passed the Georgia House with only one vote to spare after a fraught, emotionally divisive debate. His aides said he will not push an outright ban in a Legislature unlikely to pass stiffer restrictions, and instead would focus on implementing the current law, which he often boasts is the nation’s “toughest.”

That law, now expected to take effect within months pending a court ruling, provides exceptions for cases of rape or incest, as well as cases of medical emergency or when a pregnancy is deemed “medically futile.”

Still, conservative lawmakers and their allies are seeking other steps to make it harder to access abortions. Among them is a measure that would ban women from receiving the abortion pill through the mail and require anyone who wants to use them to visit a doctor in advance.

“It’s just one example that must be implemented to ensure women are protected and in-person sonograms are conducted,” said state Sen. Bruce Thompson, the proposal’s sponsor and the Republican nominee for labor commissioner.

Abortion rights supporters are girding for the next phase. Melissa Karamat said she felt like Friday was a day of mourning when the decision came out. By Saturday, though, she was ready to take action. The 33-year-old brought three generations of her family to an Atlanta protest in the shadows of the state Capitol — and marveled at the turnout.

“Seeing parents and people from all walks of life, all fighting for the same thing, I feel less defeated,” said Karamat. “We want to do what we can to keep pushing forward.”

Staff writers Joszef Papp, Caroline Silva and Hannah Ziegler contributed to this report.