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Stacey Abrams is behind in the polls and looking to abortion rights to help her win

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams joins a group of women as they discuss their personal stories of miscarraige at her campaign headquarters in Decatur, Ga. on Aug. 3.
Riley Bunch/GPB
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams joins a group of women as they discuss their personal stories of miscarraige at her campaign headquarters in Decatur, Ga. on Aug. 3.

ATLANTA – Stacey Abrams didn't always support abortion rights. The high-profile Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, the daughter of two retired United Methodist pastors, grew up opposing abortion because of her religious beliefs at the time.

But on the campaign trail ahead of the November midterms where Georgians will cast ballots in the contentious gubernatorial race, Abrams tells the story of her change of heart that happened in college.

"I evolved on this issue because I learned more. And what I understand is that abortion is not a political decision. It is a medical choice," she said during a press conference in July.

Abortion rights have been thrust into the center of Democrat's campaign for statewide offices in Georgia.

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and hand the decision on abortion back to states heightened the stakes of decisions made at the ballot box. Particularly in Georgia, where shortly after the ruling a federal appeals court decided the state's strict abortion law could immediately take effect.

By a narrow vote in 2019, Georgia lawmakers passed a law that bans most abortions around six weeks of pregnancy, which opponents say is often before a person knows they're pregnant.

It also includes controversial language that gives an embryo or fetus at any stage of development legal rights. That has prompted a slate of legal questions.

Questions like whether or not a woman who has a miscarriage could be investigated for murder – although the law does not explicitly state that.

Polling shows Abrams trailing slightly behind her opponent, incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp with a little more than two months until the November election.

But the party eyes a new opportunity for a boost in turnout in their favor: hopes that anger over the law will mobilize the base and even win over some swing voters.

Momentum after Kansas

They have reason to be hopeful. In deeply conservative Kansas, voters recently turned up in droves to vote down a state constitutional referendum that would have dissolved abortion rights.

Abrams said that moment gave her hope.

"What that signals to us here in Georgia is that we have the same power. We are not a hyper-conservative state. We are a divided state," she said. "But that division disappears when you look at what's happening around the issue of abortion."

A recent poll conducted by the University of Georgia for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that more than half of voters do not support the state's new abortion law.

Audrey Haynes, professor of political science at the university, said that Republicans may have alienated some independent voters with their strict abortion choices – a group that will be crucial in November as the margin of votes between statewide candidates has gotten slimmer over the past few years.

"It is clear that in the state of Georgia, most people – the majority of people – are opposed to what happened with Roe v. Wade," she said. "In fact, I think that one of the problems that Republicans have in this case is that they are projecting a level of conservatism on the electorate that doesn't really exist."

Republicans cheered the ruling when a federal appeals court in Georgia allowed the 2019 law to go forward after three years tied up in court.

"We are overjoyed that the court has paved the way for the implementation of Georgia's Life Act," said Kemp in the halls of the state Capitol in July.

But since initial reactions, the party has been quiet on the issue. Instead, Republicans in Georgia and nationally are working hard to leverage disapproval with President Joe Biden and the national economy as their go-to rallying cry to voters.

National polling from Monmouth University shows inflation is still top of mind for voters as they face sky-high prices at the grocery store and the gas pump.

Martha Zoller, the executive director for Georgia Life Alliance and longtime conservative commentator, is skeptical that abortion as a driving issue will have a measurable impact on the outcome of the election.

"I think people that are pro-life are already voting Republican and people that are pro-choice are already voting Democrat," she said. "In light of the economy and inflation, I just still think that this issue is not going to be the number one issue for most voters."

Trying for personal appeals

The top of the state ticket in Georgia is nearly entirely women – Stacey Abrams is the nominee for governor, Jen Jordan is up for attorney general and Bee Nguyen is in the contest for secretary of state.

The party has launched an aggressive effort to reach women voters – Democrats and Republicans alike – on the issue with emotional personal appeals.

"As more and more women understand what is happening, as more and more women face the reality of this law, we will see more and more women turn out," Abrams speculated.

In the basement of Abrams' headquarters, a small group of women gathered for an intimate conversation.

Abrams sat in the middle of the six women with a grim look on her face as they shared their personal stories of miscarriage.

Atlanta resident Alana Leverette emotionally described going through two miscarriages – one while she was at work.

Atlanta resident Alana Leverette gets emotional as she joins a group of six women during a discussion about their experience with miscarraiges.
/ Riley Bunch/GPB
Riley Bunch/GPB
Atlanta resident Alana Leverette gets emotional as she joins a group of six women during a discussion about their experience with miscarraiges.

"I felt embarrassed. I felt very, again, sad," she said. "But I wished I had more of a support system to be able to say, I need a minute, I need to grieve."

Uncertainty around Georgia's new law has sparked deeply personal conversations like this one across the state, although abortion opponents adamantly deny that the law would open a path for women to be investigated for murder after a miscarriage.

"The left is just trying to scare people," Zoller, with the Georgia Life Alliance, said.

Democratic state Rep. Shea Roberts was also among the group of women gathered at Abrams' headquarters that day.

She, too, has been sharing her own abortion story after she made the decision 15 years ago to terminate a pregnancy after bloodwork showed the baby would not survive outside the womb.

In 2020, she narrowly beat a Republican incumbent in a suburban Atlanta district – her opponent was one of the few GOP lawmakers who voted against Georgia's abortion ban in 2019.

With suburban women a highly sought-after voter demographic, Roberts is focusing a portion of her reelection campaign on reaching Republican and independent women on the issue of abortion.

"I'm hoping that's going to show up at the ballot box," she said. "I'm hoping that people understand. Yes. There are economic issues that need to be addressed right now. But this is [a] fundamental freedom."

Georgia is not the only place where abortion rights could be a key issue in November: Planned Parenthood recently announced a $50 million investment to mobilize around the issue nationwide.

Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Riley Bunch