Georgia House races could be ground zero for abortion debate

Restrictive anti-abortion laws could put Republicans on defense with suburban voters

Georgia Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath is running for re-election next year in one of two competitive districts in the state where the abortion debate could be a salient issue with suburban voters. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Georgia Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath is running for re-election next year in one of two competitive districts in the state where the abortion debate could be a salient issue with suburban voters. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 4, 2019 at 5:00am

The sponsor of Georgia’s so-called heartbeat law is launching a congressional bid this week, which is likely to keep the abortion debate alive in a crucial state for both parties up and down the ballot in 2020. 

State Sen. Renee Unterman is expected to announce Thursday her campaign for the Republican nomination in Georgia’s 7th District, a demographically changing seat outside Atlanta that had the closest margin of any House race in the country last year. 

Both parties have Georgia on their minds these days — just in time for controversial abortion measures across the country to rev up their bases in an increasingly competitive state.

Democrats are hoping they can put Georgia in play at the presidential level, seriously contest the Senate race and finally flip the 7th District, which they came within 433 votes of winning last fall. Republicans are trying to win back the neighboring 6th District, which they spent millions of dollars defending in a high-profile special election in 2017, only to narrowly lose it a year later.

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Georgia’s law, which would take effect in January unless a court blocks it, would effectively ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. A handful of other states have recently passed or are attempting to pass strict abortion laws, which Democrats — especially those running for president or trying to raise money — have used to paint the GOP as extreme.

Few of those states, however, are likely to see House races as competitive as these two districts outside Atlanta, where neither party can afford to lose suburban voters.

Top House races

Both Georgia’s 6th and 7th districts backed President Donald Trump by single digits — the former by 2 points, the latter by 6 — and include the kinds of highly educated and affluent suburbs that Democrats think are the key to keeping, and growing, their House majority. 

Democrats picked up the 6th District last fall, when gun control activist Lucy McBath defeated GOP Rep. Karen Handel by 1 point. The former congresswoman is back for a rematch, but faces a primary first. McBath is already fundraising off the abortion law, and Democrats have long attacked Handel on her anti-abortion position. 

Although Democrats fell short in the neighboring 7th District last year, GOP Rep. Rob Woodall has already decided against running for another term. The open seat has attracted lots of interest from both sides. Professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost to Woodall in last year’s recount, is running again, as are at least four other Democrats.

Five Republicans are already running — including military veterans and at least one likely self-funder — with several more expected to jump in.

Although she threatened to switch parties earlier this year after losing a committee chairmanship in the state Senate, Unterman’s entrance into the GOP contest could push her to the front of the pack given that she already has a constituency in the Legislature. Her sponsorship of the law that bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected will likely endear her to GOP primary voters.

For Democrats trying to lock down this district by appealing to suburban Republican women and independents, that’s a dream scenario that they think could tip this seat and others like it in their favor. 

“Republicans are in the process of really sacrificing districts like these to drive up their support in more small-town, non-metro parts of the state,” said Democratic pollster Zac McCrary, who’s working for Bourdeaux. 

“In some ways, Republicans could skate on this at the federal level, but they have ‘patient zero’ as the front-runner in arguably the most competitive open seat that exists,” McCrary added.

Republicans on defense

But the debate is more complicated than that, Republicans argue.

Although restrictive anti-abortion laws have dominated the news lately, Republicans are prepared to keep up the pressure on Democrats over legislation in other states that tried to expand abortion rights. 

The National Republican Congressional Committee spent most of Friday blasting out press releases against vulnerable Democrats with crude graphics of “gruesome partial birth abortions.” They tried tying Democrats like McBath to an Illinois state House plan that establishes a “fundamental right” of a woman to have an abortion.  

Polling is definitive that Americans support a woman’s right to have an abortion. But public opinion gets murkier when it comes to what can be done when. Sixty percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in the first trimester, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. That support dropped to 28 percent in the second trimester and to just 13 percent in the last trimester. 

The circumstances of the pregnancy also affect public opinion. Two-thirds of Americans supported abortion during the third trimester if the woman’s life were endangered, and slightly more than half supported it if the pregnancy were caused by rape or incest, according to Gallup. 

The Georgia law has exceptions for when the woman’s life is at risk and for rape or incest, when a police report has been filed.

What worries some GOP strategists — who wouldn’t talk on the record about such a sensitive issue in their party — is that restrictive anti-abortion measures weaken the party’s ability to attack Democrats about more expansive abortion proposals.

“At this point, we do have to remind voters what the Democrats’ policy is, and we do that best if not playing defense,” one Republican strategist said. 

By a 55 percent to 45 percent margin, Americans opposed state efforts to restrict abortions after a heartbeat has been detected, according to a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll released Monday. 

“We already have a massive problem with college-educated women. I don’t see how this helps us,” the strategist added. “There are a lot of other things we should be talking about.”

The most recent polling on Georgia’s restrictions was conducted in late March and early April — before the measure became law. About half of registered Georgia voters opposed it, while 44 percent supported it, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center. 

“The opposition tends to be more intense than the support for it,” said Geoffrey Sheagley, a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs. Only 25 percent strongly supported the bill, whereas 39 percent were strongly opposed.


“The intensity of opposition is more likely to increase, and I don’t think support will get much stronger,” Sheagley added.

 It’s impossible to predict how one issue, and today’s conversation about it, will motivate voters more than a year out from the election. But nationally, more than half of Democrats surveyed in the USA TODAY/Ipsos poll said the abortion debate makes them more likely to vote in 2020, while 55 percent of Republicans said the debate didn’t affect their likelihood to vote.


An economic issue?

 The debate over the Georgia law is no longer just about social issues. It’s also about economics, with Democrats warning of a business backlash similar to the one that followed North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill.

Hollywood studios that film in Georgia because of a beneficial state tax credit have said they would consider moving their productions out of the state if the law takes effect.

More than 90,000 Georgians work in the entertainment business, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. GOP Gov. Brian Kemp has postponed a trip to Hollywood to meet with executives, while his 2018 gubernatorial rival, Democrat Stacey Abrams, is going instead, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday. 

Republicans are quick to dismiss the warnings from TV and film studios as  empty threats from liberals.

“I don’t think voters are going to be making any decision in the election based on whether a bunch of people in Hollywood agree with what the state has done,” said GOP consultant Rob Simms, a former NRCC executive director who’s working with Handel.

“If Hollywood is telling them they’re doing something wrong, a lot of voters will go, ‘Good,’” he added.