OPINION: Democratic women are running on abortion, even in deep red Georgia

CLEVELAND, Ga.-- White County, in the north Georgia mountains, is one of the reddest counties in the state.

Donald Trump won there with 83% of the vote in 2020, so it’s just about the last place you’d expect to see a Democratic meeting draw a room full of potential voters at noon on a Tuesday. But that’s what happened this week when I went to Cleveland, Ga. to meet June Krise, a semi-retired nurse and longtime Democrat who is running for the state House seat there.

Although she thought health care would be the top issue in her campaign, Krise said the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade this summer has become the dominant focus of her efforts.

“It seems in Georgia Republican men want to be doctors and lawyers and preachers and decide when a woman can have an abortion,” she told me in an interview. “That’s ridiculous.”

As a nurse for more than 30 years, she said she’d seen women and girls, including a high school student who had been raped, who later sought abortions. None of the decisions were easy for women, she said. But the right to decide belonged with them, not lawmakers.

“That’s what grieves me, is that I know the agony that people go through when they decide that they’re going to have an abortion.”

Krise has almost no expectation that she’ll defeat the GOP incumbent in the race, Republican state Rep. Stan Gunter, who won his seat in 2020 with more than 80% of the vote. But if she and other pro-choice Democrats can narrow Republicans’ margins deep red districts like hers, they hope to get statewide Democrats like Stacey Abrams that much closer to victory.

Although abortion rights are a top issue for Democratic voters especially, it’s not clear how much of an impact the issue will have in 2022. Polling from the AJC shows that 52% of Georgia voters oppose the GOP-backed law, with just 36% in favor of the measure, which bans abortion at about six weeks and before most women know they’re pregnant.

But recent polls also suggest the issue hasn’t damaged Kemp or other statewide Republicans, despite Democrats’ belief that it eventually will.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager, has said their research shows the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade is a more powerful motivator for their potential voters this year than any issue in 2018, including for some Republican women.

That explains the state Democratic Party’s decision to blanket the Atlanta suburbs with mailers for races up and down the ballot, all hammering Kemp’s record on abortion rights and calling him, “Wrong for Georgia.”

It also gives an insight into why the party’s first ad against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger focuses on Raffensperger’s position on abortion rights, not voting rights. “You don’t know the real Brad Raffensperger,” the ad warns viewers.

With pink poster board signs on the wall that read, “I’m not ovary-acting!” and “See you in Roe-vember,” Melita Easters told the White County group this week that the new law is likely to be only the beginning of more restrictions coming next year unless Democrats increase their numbers in the General Assembly. Easters runs the Georgia WIN List, which is supporting 56 pro-choice Democratic women for state House and Senate races this cycle, including Krise,

“We have to have the right number of women in the halls and at the tables where the decisions are made when the Republicans come back to fix the mess they’ve created,” she said. “The Republicans will try to push the envelope and we have to push back harder.”

Even in conservative northwest Georgia, the message in the room was unambiguously pro-women’s rights and pro-abortion rights.

“No more ceding any of this ground to the GOP, no more letting them have control of our rural areas, our bodily autonomy,” Ashland Swann, Stacey Abrams’ regional political director, told the group. “We are not taking this anymore. This is our year.”

Democrats have gotten encouragement from early voting data, which shows that 62% of the voters who requested absentee ballots so far are women. But Republicans insist inflation and the economy are by far the most motivating issues for voters this cycle, including many of those early-voting women.

State Rep. Stan Gunter, the Republican whom Krise is challenging, said that he’s never had a voter raise the issue of abortion at any of his events so far this year. If anyone does bring it up, it’s been Gunter himself.

“The voters I’ve talked to don’t seem to be interested in that issue,” he said.

First elected in 2020, Gunter was not in the state House when it passed the abortion law. And he said he’s not 100% sure how he would have voted, since nobody has ever asked him.

But the conservative former Superior Court judge said he has concerns about language that allows abortions in cases of rape and incest up to 20 weeks.

“I view it as, a life is in jeopardy if the abortion takes place,” he said. “I would struggle with that because I also understand the woman’s viewpoint is, she needs to control whether she can, whether she wants the baby or not. I get all that and that’s what I struggle with.”

June Krise does not struggle with her feelings about the law.

“People don’t like to talk about rape and incest and fathers who impregnate their own daughters,” she said. “Nurses and doctors and medical people see this more often. Abortion needs to be rare, but legal and safe.”

After the meeting in Cleveland, Krise was on her way to a rally in Sautee Nachoochee, a rare Democratic-friendly area in a county that’s so conservative, even some staunch liberals aren’t vocal about their politics.

“If my neighbors find out I’m a Democrat, I don’t know what might happen,” a woman at the meeting in Cleveland told me. She asked not to use her name out of fear of retaliation.

But will she vote for a Democrat in November anyway? “Oh, absolutely.” Her top issue is abortion.

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