OPINION: Abortion hasn’t changed the game for Georgia Democrats, yet

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, I, like a lot of political watchers, assumed that the issue of abortion would change the electoral fortunes of Democrats in Georgia.

Abortion rights had been protected by law for nearly 50 years, the majority or entirety of many women’s lifetimes. A fundamental change in the abortion laws would create a fundamental change in politics, too, wouldn’t it?

Stacey Abrams’ campaign thought so. Over the summer, their data showed the issue could be more powerful for them in 2022 than anything they’d seen in Abrams’ race against Kemp four years ago.

A Kansas ballot initiative in August gave them more reason to believe.

Although Donald Trump had won Kansas by 15 points in 2020, the constitutional amendment to eliminate a women’s right to abortion there failed by 18 points. Women’s voter registration in the state surged to 70% in the time between the Dobbs decision and the vote. The electorate in Kansas had been reshaped.

But just a week away from Election Day, Democrats’ expectation that the same thing would happen in Georgia hasn’t materialized. Abrams is trailing Kemp by about six points in the latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, a bigger spread than in 2018. And surveys by the AJC and others show that while most Georgians oppose the six-week abortion ban Kemp signed in 2018, they’re more likely to vote based on inflation and crime in 2022.

But polls are polls, and Abrams’ camp is pointing to a spike in women requesting mail-in ballots — 59% — as early evidence that Georgia women are more activated than ever in the past. The party’s mailers, ads, and speeches all remind voters that Kemp signed the new abortion restrictions in 2019 and warn that he could push restrictions in the state even further if he’s elected again.

The governor and Abrams sparred over the issue one last time in their final debate Sunday night, when Abrams repeatedly described the law Kemp signed as not just taking away women’s rights, but as a measure passed by “men who do not understand biology.”

The decision to have an abortion, she said, “should not be adjudicated by men in the state legislature, but by a woman and her doctor. And that is what I will defend.”

In an unrehearsed moment, Kemp revealed that first lady Marty Kemp had a miscarriage early in their marriage.

“I have been in the doctor’s office with my wife and seen two heartbeats on ultrasound. I’ve gone back a week or so later and saw one heartbeat,” Kemp said. “My wife and I both had a hard time having our first child. She miscarried.”

Kemp’s revelation Sunday might have convinced some voters that he understands both biology and the personal toll of miscarriage.

Or it might have highlighted the fact that his family’s personal story was tragic, personal, and nobody’s business but theirs at the time. Women in Georgia today cannot say the same.

In the all-important Atlanta suburbs, Democrats are banking on the fact that educated suburban women will swing wide for Abrams and the entire ticket down the ballot to reverse the abortion law in the future.

That was the message at a get-out-the-vote event for Democrats over the weekend in Sandy Springs, where attorney general nominee Jen Jordan told the rally the new law means, “Women have literally been relegated to second-class status, and we have worked too damn hard” to go back now.

Bee Nguyen, the nominee for secretary of state, said: “Our basic freedoms are under attack, including the freedom to vote and the freedom to choose and I tell you, Hell hath no fury like an angry Southern woman.”

After the event, Sandy Springs resident Clarissa Smarts said she thinks Abrams can win this year, largely because of the abortion issue.

“I think the momentum for women is higher this year. I think it was high in 2020, but it has taken a whole different turn,” she said. “With everything that has happened, especially with this ‘heartbeat bill,’ I think that is going to grab a lot of women right now.”

Smarts works as an OB-GYN nurse where she said she’s seen women who had been raped, abused, or had considered abortion for an array of reasons.

“For me, taking away the choice for women — that is big. I believe every woman has that right.”

Rosalyn Griffin, who was at the same Abrams’ event, said abortion is a driving issue for her, too.

“It’s almost a ‘how dare them,’” she said of Kemp and the GOP lawmakers who voted for H.B. 481. “Now we are able to use our voice to say, ‘You cannot.”

The votes of suburban women like Smarts and Griffin will play a huge role in the outcome of the statewide races in Georgia.

But so will the votes of women in the outer suburbs of Forsyth and Cherokee counties. That’s where Kemp and former Vice President Mike Pence campaigned together on Tuesday.

Speaking to a group of about 100 next to the county courthouse in Cumming, the two conservative men made their final pitch to voters, not on abortion, but on the economy.

“I knew he would lead Georgia to unprecedented prosperity and security and Brian Kemp has delivered for all the people in the Peach State,” Pence said.

Kemp’s relentless focus on economic issues Tuesday and through the general election campaign against Abrams hasn’t been a coincidence.

A Kemp campaign focus group of independent female voters showed that while nearly all of them disagreed with his position on abortion, a majority said they’d vote for him based on the other issues on the table, including inflation.

Whether they cast their votes on abortion or the economy, they won’t just decide whether Kemp or Abrams is the next governor, they’ll decide which rights women will or won’t have in Georgia, too.