Late GOP push for Pinson highlights partisan rift in Georgia court race

Republicans are stepping up their support for a Georgia Supreme Court incumbent in a nominally nonpartisan race, while top Democrats aren’t publicly endorsing Barrow.

Georgia Republicans believe they have an answer to a former Democratic lawmaker’s attempt to turn his quest for a Georgia Supreme Court race into a referendum on abortion rights.

They are stepping up their support for incumbent Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson, who is facing a stiff challenge from former U.S. Rep. John Barrow in Tuesday’s primary.

Barrow hasn’t drawn the public endorsements of leading Democratic politicians, and he went largely unmentioned when the party’s elite surrounded President Joe Biden during a weekend visit. Barrow said there’s good reason for that: He hasn’t sought out their blessings for the nonpartisan race.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow, who has focused his campaign to unseat a Georgia Supreme Court justice on a pledge to protect abortion rights, said he hasn't sought endorsements from major Democrats because it's not supposed to be a partisan race. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /

The latest example of that contrast came Monday on the eve of the election, when Pinson stood with Gov. Brian Kemp, first lady Marty Kemp and Insurance Commissioner John King to urge conservatives to preserve an “independent judiciary.”

“We can keep a justice system that’s fair and impartial,” Pinson said. “Or we can have a system of partisan politics.”

Barrow, meanwhile, held quieter campaign events with local supporters bereft of the star power that a leading Democratic would bring.

A ‘partisan’ race?

The Tuesday race is officially nonpartisan, but governors of both parties have long fought to defend their favored candidates. But this contest is different.

Barrow is seeking to be the first challenger to unseat an incumbent state Supreme Court justice in more than a century by centering his campaign on a promise to “protect” abortion rights — issuing a direct challenge to Kemp’s 2019 law restricting the procedure.

Barrow’s outspoken — and unorthodox — pledge to oppose Georgia’s anti-abortion law is the center of a court case against the state’s judicial watchdog agency, and it’s ruffled feathers within the judiciary. Barrow said he’s done nothing wrong by advocating that abortion rights are protected by Georgia law.

“That is not a partisan position, and it is not a political position. It is an opinion as to Georgia constitutional law,” he said. “Something my opponent refuses to say anything about but is trying to prevent me from even saying.”

It’s also triggered conservative blowback. Kemp’s political network earlier this month plowed more than $500,000 into a 30-second spot backing Pinson, his 2022 appointee to the bench.

“He’s continued to uphold the law and the constitution. That’s what he’s supposed to do,” Kemp said Monday. “He’s not running for the Legislature. He’s on a nonpartisan court, and he’s done a good job.”

Conservative groups including the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Georgia Life Alliance and Frontline Policy Action are also boosting Pinson through flyers contrasting his stance with Barrow and other get-out-the-vote initiatives.

A group tied to House Speaker Jon Burns is financing digital ads for Pinson. And at the Georgia GOP convention over the weekend, several advocates used their platform to vouch for the justice, who also points to bipartisan backing that includes members of his steering committee.

There’s also personal issues at stake. Kemp and Barrow both call Athens home, and Barrow was on the Athens-Clarke County Commission in 2002 when Kemp grew so frustrated with local politics that he decided to run for the state Senate. Kemp’s upset victory decades ago launched his political career.

Barrow, by contrast, has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates and other abortion rights advocacies. But party figures such as U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock haven’t campaigned for Barrow, nor have lower-profile Democrats. The former lawmaker said that’s by design.

“It’s not a partisan race, so I have not sought the endorsement of partisan politicians,” Barrow said. “Though I see that doesn’t apply to my opponent. He is obviously trying to make it a partisan race.”