Both opponents and supporters of abortion rights are investing heavily in the Georgia Senate runoff election next week, underscoring in their get-out-the-vote and fundraising efforts the crucial significance that a US Senate majority would offer each side as they look to advance their agenda under a new administration.
That’s why many of those activists have spent their holiday season working to draw supporters to the polls, whether for Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, or incumbent Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Early voting wrapped this week and Election Day is Tuesday, January 5.
If Democrats win both seats, they’ll control the chamber with a 50-50 split decided by incoming Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
The Senate majority would determine whether measures expanding abortion access backed by the Democrat-led House and Democratic President-elect Joe Biden would meet a receptive vote or a thorny end. And on a much broader scale, whichever party takes the Senate holds the power to confirm or reject Biden’s picks for the federal judiciary, a key part of determining national abortion policy as conservative state legislatures advance restrictions in hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
Anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List’s partner Women Speak Out PAC is on track to exceed its projected $4.1 million campaign on the runoff, according to the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser. The campaign, which is slated to reach 1 million voters and make 750,000 in-person voter visits, features hand delivered absentee ballot applications as well as digital and mail ads, she said.
Dannenfelser credits the rise of abortion as a focal issue in the race to the candidates deciding “that they’re going to communicate (their stances on abortion) as part of their overall leadership, one way or the other.”
“You’ve got complete clarity between the two sets of candidates, and when you have complete clarity, that’s a gift in politics, and it’s something that can be defined – you can mobilize a base,” she said, adding that, “I think in Georgia, it’s a set up for this to be the same dynamic as in many other type battlegrounds that … a reasonable abortion position puts you, gives you the edge.”
The organization has also issued Spanish-language ads targeting 100,000 Spanish-speaking voters in Georgia, which is 9.9% Latino, according to the US Census Bureau.
“We had not planned on that in Georgia, not necessarily foreseeing that we would be interacting with a lot of Spanish-speaking, pro-life voters, but as it turns out, we are,” Dannenfelser said, adding that “we want to meet people where they are.” The group anticipates strong voter turnout for anti-abortion candidates among Hispanic voters and young women between the ages of 18 and 22, she said.
On the other side, Planned Parenthood Votes has a six-figure campaign underway, according to Alicia Stallworth, the super PAC’s Georgia state director. The group has sent nearly 400,000 text messages, made hundreds of daily phone calls and is part of a coalition of progressive groups that is over 85% of the way to its goal of knocking on five million doors, Stallworth said.
Planned Parenthood Votes is canvassing in Cobb County, bordering Atlanta – Georgia’s third most populous county, and home to a Planned Parenthood health center – and targeting demographics that include their supporters: women under the age of 35, people of color, White suburban voters and White college educated women, Stallworth added.
“Our ground game and our strategy is to organize to turn out voters, to try to repeat the same thing that we did in the general election,” she said. She thinks that abortion has stepped into the runoff spotlight because Warnock “is a pastor and we are in the South, so it’s that outdated belief that he cannot be a minister and support women’s reproductive rights.”
Warnock under scrutiny
While both Loeffler and Perdue have pressed their opponents on their stances on abortion – asserting in a co-authored op-ed that Ossoff and Warnock are planning on “legalizing late-term abortion, sending your tax dollars to fund abortions” – Warnock has garnered much of the attention on the issue.
Twenty-eight Black Christian ministers, mostly based in Georgia, sent a letter to Warnock several weeks ago lambasting him for supporting abortion rights. Churches, especially Christian evangelical churches in Georgia, have been a potent force among the electorate, and Georgia preachers have voiced support for the views of Senate candidates in both parties.
Some conservative politicians have accused Warnock, who was born and raised in Savannah and has served as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for 15 years, of misleading voters regarding his identity and failing to represent the state’s views.
“You see this Warnock fella who’s coming down here and disguising himself as some moderate pastor from the South who doesn’t believe in these radical ideas,” North Carolina Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn told Fox News in mid-December. Cawthorn asserted that Warnock “says he’s a pastor, yet he’s all about abortion. This is somebody who does not represent what real Americans believe.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin asked a Georgia rally crowd in December, “Is this a representation of the Democrats’ heart in Georgia, to have a pro-abortion pastor who’s running?” She said that “it’s all the more reason why we have those in the Senate, especially those representing Georgia, who understand the sanctity of life.”
Loeffler highlighted her divisions with Warnock over abortion during the only televised debate in the Senate runoffs, beginning her argument, “Look, I’m not going to be lectured by someone who uses the Bible to justify abortion.”
“Listen,” Warnock said as part of a broader response to the attack. “I have a profound reverence for life and an abiding respect for choice. The question is, whose decision is it. And I happen to think that a patient’s room is too small a place for a woman, her doctor and the US government – I think that’s too many people in the room.”
Warnock has stood by his stance on the issue, tweeting, “I am a pro-choice pastor” and “I will always fight for reproductive justice.” A former sexual health educator, Warnock sent an email to supporters last month highlighting Loeffler’s vote to confirm conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and accusing Loeffler of “attacking me for my unequivocal belief in a woman’s right to choose.”
A divisive issue has a history in the state
Georgia has historically taken a conservative stance on abortion, with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signing a “heartbeat” bill in 2019 banning abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy that was blocked in court in July 2020.
But Biden won the state in the presidential election by less than 12,000 votes, marking the first time in 28 years that a Democrat won Georgia. The Democratic ticket’s historic success was fueled by a grassroots organizing renaissance that rallied a rapidly diversifying electorate and suburbs that are, at once, growing and becoming increasingly inhospitable to Republican candidates.
Polling on abortion in Georgia suggests that the issue is narrowly divided. According to CNN exit polling from Election Day, 52% of Georgia voters thought that abortion should be legal, while 43% thought it should be illegal. Those numbers also vary based on race – among White Georgia voters, 43% thought abortion should be legal while 53% thought it should be illegal, and among Black Georgia voters, 69% thought abortion should be legal while 24% thought it should be illegal.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Alexis McGill Johnson, who appeared at a Get Out the Vote event with former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, told CNN that Abrams, whose group Fair Fight aims to help Democratic candidates by increasing voter turnout, and other partners in the state “have been laying the groundwork for understanding sort of where progressive voters are in Georgia, and that it is a numbers game and a turnout game.”
“Particularly in the middle of a pandemic, the opportunity to talk about health care, to talk about the impact that not having access to basic health care, including access to abortion, or limitations on that, really resonates with people,” McGill Johnson said, adding that “I definitely feel as though this is a winnable race because of the climate that we’re in.”
Outcome in Georgia has national ramifications
The implications of who wins the challenges and thus the Senate could be swift. Biden backs repealing the Hyde Amendment, a provision in congressional funding bills since 1976 that currently bars federal funds from going toward abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is at risk. Biden’s position comes after making a dramatic shift during the Democratic primaries from his long-held support for the provision.
And despite the current Republican-controlled Senate, Democrats in both chambers have signaled interest on various provisions expanding abortion access. Disagreements over Hyde were one of the sticking points in negotiations over the massive government spending bill for the new fiscal year, and House Democrats hosted a hearing last month, expressing hope of repealing Hyde. In the Senate, a markup of a funding bill was abruptly canceled in late 2019 after Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington requested a vote on her amendment reversing the Title X abortion referral rule that bars participating providers from referring patients for abortions, according to a Democratic aide.
None of this is lost on Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life Action, an anti-abortion group bringing over 200 students to Georgia with the goal of knocking on 70,000 doors and directly texting voters in a campaign costing at least $280,000.
To Hawkins, abortion has emerged as a key issue in the Georgia runoff “because the Supreme Court in 1973 handed down Roe v. Wade,” which she characterized as “hanging by a thread” in light of the multiple legal cases in the pipeline for the conservative-majority court to consider.
She pointed to the significance of Supreme Court picks as well as the multiple venues where the battle over abortion access is playing out. “We’re calling it the ‘Save the Senate’ campaign because it’s literally going to determine whether or not we can hold back taxpayer-funded abortion on demand and all nine months,” Hawkins said, referring to efforts to repeal the Hyde Amendment, “whether or not we can ensure that, you know, the Democrats do not try to pack the US Supreme court.”
Stallworth sees what’s riding on the runoff as similarly critical.
“Honestly, I think everything is at stake in these two Senate seats,” she said. “Especially when we’re talking about the fact that the two senators who we need to be elected will hold, will basically hold the fate of the nation in their hands when we know that women’s reproductive rights are constantly being attacked.”
CNN’s Kyung Lah, Kim Berryman, Donald Judd, Caroline Kenny and Gregory Krieg contributed to this report.