Once a fringe idea, many Georgia Republicans now push for total abortion ban

The jockeying to win over conservative voters ahead of the upcoming May 24 primary has prompted many leading Republican candidates to support an all-out ban on abortion that even key activists aren’t aggressively pursuing.

Polarizing primary campaign politics emboldened many top Georgia GOP candidates to take strident positions on abortion even before a leaked opinion suggested the U.S. Supreme Court may strike down the constitutional right to the procedure.

As Democrats try to channel fury over the potential ruling into electoral energy, Republicans are contending with pressure for added restrictions that go well beyond the state’s 2019 anti-abortion law if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Now what was once a fringe idea among some social and religious conservatives — a complete ban on abortion, without exceptions for rape and incest — is now a part of the platforms of GOP favorites.

It’s factored most prominently in the race for Georgia governor, with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s promise to push lawmakers to outlaw all abortion if he’s elected governor and the landmark 1973 case is reversed. It’s a step that Gov. Brian Kemp is so far unwilling to endorse.

All six Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, including front-runner Herschel Walker, support an outright ban on abortion. So do all four Republicans running for lieutenant governor. And many GOP contenders for offices that have no say over abortion policy are taking a similar line.

“The draft majority opinion itself was impeccably reasoned, it’s powerful and I believe it truly represents the direction that the Supreme Court needs to go,” said U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who is running for secretary of state, a job that has nothing to do with abortion matters.

‘A great stride’

The rush by leading Republican candidates to take absolute positions puts them at odds with some anti-abortion activists who are more reluctant to advocate for an outright ban on the procedure.

Instead, many advocates are focused on defending the state’s 2019 law that would ban abortions after a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, typically about six weeks into a pregnancy — often before a woman knows she is pregnant.

Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator who is the executive director of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, has urged supporters to push back when abortion rights supporters say that overturning Roe would “effectively outlaw abortion.”

Credit: Richard Elliot/WSB-TV

Credit: Richard Elliot/WSB-TV

“We are ready to implement the heartbeat bill when Roe is overturned. But I have never thought even after the leak that this is a done deal,” she said. “Until we see the official opinion and decision from the Supreme Court, we are prepared for anything.”

Mike Griffin of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board indicated that he was focused on preserving the state’s anti-abortion law should Roe fall. Asked whether his organization would now push for stricter abortion rules, Griffin said he would be open to “what might be viable as we move forward.”

“We’re for protecting all innocent human life always. So we’re always going to be for whatever attempts that goal,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that the legislation that we were able to pass in 2019 certainly makes a great stride toward that end.”

‘The dog that caught the car’

Activists on both sides of the abortion dividing line need little reminder of the debate in 2019, when Kemp made adopting restrictions his top legislative priority. The back-and-forth that followed led to protests and threats of economic boycott.

The final measure passed the Georgia House with one vote to spare after about a dozen GOP legislators abstained from voting or joined Democrats to oppose it. Several Republican lawmakers who lost their seats in 2020 grumbled that the law contributed to their electoral demise.

That’s why Cole Muzio of Frontline Policy Action, an anti-abortion group, indicated there’s little support now for stricter rules. Instead, he’s focused on electing lawmakers who are “willing to stand against the tide, take the hits and be willing to stand boldly.”

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to choose between the pretenders and those who are actually willing to fight for it.”

Struggling in his campaign to oust the governor, Perdue sees the impending decision as a fresh dividing line in his primary challenge. At a recent campaign stop in Gainesville, he called on Kemp to get “shoulder to shoulder” with him by advocating a total ban.

“This should be all of us protecting life,” Perdue said. “I didn’t do this for a political reason. I did it because I felt it was morally correct.”

The governor has not backed such a step, instead trumpeting the 2019 law. His campaign has claimed that Perdue was “nowhere to be found” during that debate and accused him of failing to back federal legislation that would have nullified the Roe decision.

“The contrast could not be clearer,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said. “Georgians deserve a governor who stands up for our values — not one who hides when it matters most.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Genevieve Wilson, the director of Georgia Right to Life’s political action committee, sounded wary of the GOP contenders trying to outdo each other with their opposition to abortion.

”We know that we’re in the primary season,” she said. “The fact that candidates are talking about it I think is amazing and very hopeful. And we’re praying that these candidates will actually act on what they’re saying, that their deeds will match their words.”

Democrats and abortion rights advocates are predicting an overreach. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January found that only about 1 in 4 registered Georgia voters wanted the Roe case overturned, while 68% were opposed.

Megan Gordon-Kane of the Atlanta-based Feminist Women’s Health Center, an abortion provider, said Roe has shielded more moderate voters from the GOP’s right flank.

“It’s going to be the dog that caught the car,” she said of attempts to ban all abortion. “And they’re going to have to actually live in the world that they’ve been talking about for years.”

Whether the potential decision reshapes the electoral landscape, as many analysts predict, remains to be seen. Jay Morgan, a well-connected lobbyist and former Georgia GOP leader, predicted that the focus and the fury over abortion will take a back seat to economic concerns in November.

“Both parties are just talking to the base right now, trying to squeeze dollars and support,” he said. “When the actual opinion comes out, the fever will spike again. But I still believe people will vote their pocketbook in November, not their prayer book.”

OUR REPORTING

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is committed to providing voters with the news and information you need to evaluate your choices in this year’s elections. We are delving into the public policy and politics of candidates’ actions and statements, tracking campaign contributions, and writing about the issues and trends as they develop. We continue to focus intensely on voting issues in Georgia and we are also polling and interviewing voters to better understand what’s on their minds.