Georgia Democrats rally against ‘extremist’ Supreme Court

Protesters hold signs in front of the state Capitol on Saturday in Atlanta as part of a sit-in supporting abortion rights. (Photo: Chris Day / Christopher.Day@ajc.com)

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Protesters hold signs in front of the state Capitol on Saturday in Atlanta as part of a sit-in supporting abortion rights. (Photo: Chris Day / Christopher.Day@ajc.com)

DALTON — Margaret Rhodes walked into a Democratic rally in a crowded North Georgia gym with an accessory: an aging abortion rights button she wore to show her disdain for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

“Republicans have played the game and they’ve played the game very well,” she said. “They knew that when Donald Trump got elected they would have Supreme Court seats to fill. Now it’s time for Democrats to play the game even harder.”

For the past three statewide elections, Trump’s presence on the ballot or in the White House gave Georgia Democrats motivation to flock to the polls. Now party leaders and activists are turning toward a new, emerging foil to motivate supporters with Trump on the sidelines: the nation’s top court.

After a sweep of precedent-shattering rulings, Georgia Democratic candidates have focused their fire on a court that’s long been secondary to state-centric elections in Georgia. They hope they can translate liberal anger at the conservative-dominated bench into electoral energy in November.

Stacey Abrams, mounting a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp, said minutes after the Supreme Court’s ruling that eliminated the constitutional right to abortion that she was “appalled” — and more determined to counteract the decision.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who faces Republican nominee Herschel Walker in November, went a step further by blasting the court as dominated by “extremist right-wing judges who have ignored precedent.”

“If you are like me, you are a bit disconcerted to say the least by what we heard the other day from the Supreme Court,” Warnock told an audience in Dalton. “But it underscores the importance of elections.”

‘Don’t take their bait’

While much of the Democratic outrage has focused on the court’s abortion ruling, other momentous 6-3 decisions focusing on gun rights, voting policy and environmental regulations have fueled liberal efforts to turn the court into an election-year foil.

The court struck down a New York law limiting guns in public places and agreed to hear a case that could give state legislators more power to shape federal elections.

Other far-reaching decisions expanded the role of religion in everyday life by establishing more protection for public displays of faith and limited the federal government’s ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

Many Georgia liberals now frame the court as a proxy for Trump, since the three conservative justices he appointed have emerged as a bulwark against Democratic control of the White House and Congress.

It’s also an attack that President Joe Biden is eager to promote as economic turbulence and high inflation complicates Democratic efforts to maintain power in November.

“America is better positioned to lead the world than we ever have been,” he said last week. “The one thing that has been destabilizing is the outrageous behavior of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

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Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's focus on the long game ensured that then-President Donald Trump would have the opportunity to stock the federal judiciary with conservative jurists. “Republicans have played the game and they’ve played the game very well,” said Margaret Rhodes, a North Georgia Democrat. “They knew that when Donald Trump got elected they would have Supreme Court seats to fill. Now it’s time for Democrats to play the game even harder.” (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's focus on the long game ensured that then-President Donald Trump would have the opportunity to stock the federal judiciary with conservative jurists. “Republicans have played the game and they’ve played the game very well,” said Margaret Rhodes, a North Georgia Democrat. “They knew that when Donald Trump got elected they would have Supreme Court seats to fill. Now it’s time for Democrats to play the game even harder.” (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's focus on the long game ensured that then-President Donald Trump would have the opportunity to stock the federal judiciary with conservative jurists. “Republicans have played the game and they’ve played the game very well,” said Margaret Rhodes, a North Georgia Democrat. “They knew that when Donald Trump got elected they would have Supreme Court seats to fill. Now it’s time for Democrats to play the game even harder.” (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Conservatives see the spate of rulings as a vindication of the hardball strategy of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who helped orchestrate a generational quest to stock the federal judiciary with conservative jurists.

Austin Chambers, a former adviser to Mike Pence and David Perdue, said McConnell’s “long game” strategy has borne fruit that will pay off for Republicans in November.

His advice to GOP candidates? “This is a gas and groceries election, not a guns and abortion election,” Chambers said. “Don’t take their bait.”

‘Reset the narrative’

That counsel might prove prescient. A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed about 41% of registered Georgia voters said the most urgent issue is inflation, followed by gun violence at 15% and abortion rights at 10%.

And Democrats show no signs of ceding ground to Republicans on the economic issues. Warnock has vowed for months to cap the price of prescription drugs, and both he and Abrams have stepped up their calls for robust tax breaks on gasoline.

Then again, it’s difficult to predict the fallout of momentous decisions that undo decades of established legal framework and, in the case of the abortion ruling, roll back a constitutional right that was embedded in the nation’s social fabric for a half-century.

The outrage was on vivid display at protests around the state, where demonstrators chanted and waved signs venting their anger at the six conservative justices.

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People "play dead" outside the U.S. Court of Appeals building in downtown Atlanta on June 25 to protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

People "play dead" outside the U.S. Court of Appeals building in downtown Atlanta on June 25 to protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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People "play dead" outside the U.S. Court of Appeals building in downtown Atlanta on June 25 to protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

An image of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who made private assurances to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine that he wouldn’t undercut the Roe ruling, was even burned in effigy at an Atlanta demonstration.

But the pushback is playing out in quieter ways, too. Cheryl Phipps is one of the Democratic committee leaders of Whitfield County, a North Georgia Republican stronghold that Trump carried by more than 40 points in 2020.

Since the court’s spate of conservative rulings, she said, the county’s Democratic committee has been flooded with social media requests, calls and visitors.

It’s her task to help turn that into more votes that could weaken Kemp, Walker and other Republican hopefuls.

“The Supreme Court has reset the narrative. When something big happens, people are looking for others who are like-minded. They’re paying attention,” she said. “The majority of Americans don’t want the kinds of decisions the court is making. And Democrats know that.”