Georgia House race becomes new battleground in fight over abortion rights

Posted at 12:23 PM, Jun 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-08 12:23:05-04

(CNN) -- Renee Unterman, the Republican state senator who sponsored Georgia's controversial "heartbeat" bill, announced a run for Congress on Thursday, opening a potential new battleground in the national fight over abortion rights.

Unterman, 65, is running for a House seat northeast of Atlanta, pitching herself as a conservative with close ties to the district and a record that goes beyond her pro-life views, including combating human trafficking and opioid addiction.

But Democrats have already pledged to make sure her bill banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy stays front and center in the House race, testing the political strength of the Republican effort to challenge the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a woman's right to an abortion.

"I think the abortion ban bill has already played a huge role in mobilizing Democrats in the state," said Maggie Chambers, the Georgia Democratic Party communications director. "Renee Unterman can't hide from this."

Georgia is among a number of states that have moved to restrict abortion over the past year, joining Louisiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi in passing bills to ban abortion after six weeks.

In May, Missouri passed a bill banning abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape and incest, and Alabama passed the country's most restrictive bill, passing an outright ban except when the mother's life is at serious risk or if the "unborn child has a lethal anomaly."

As Republicans have gone more conservative on the issue, Democrats have become more liberal, passing laws in New York and Vermont to affirm the legal right even if Roe is struck down.

A House race in Illinois between Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the last Democrats in Congress who has opposed abortion rights, and Marie Newman, his progressive challenger, could be defined by the issue. And in Virginia, Democratic legislators earlier this year tried and failed to pass a bill that would have removed some restrictions on abortion in the third trimester.

Political opportunity for Democrats?

Democrats in Georgia view Unterman's bill as a political opportunity, pointing to national and local polls showing Americans are more likely to favor abortion rights than not.

As an issue, abortion appears to hold more political sway than in recent elections. A new CNN poll showed that thirty percent of Americans would only vote for a candidate for major political office who shares their views on abortion, higher than at any point since CNN first polled the topic in 1996.

Unterman's bill has reverberated around the country and been met by a swift backlash from Hollywood.

Georgia's Republican Governor Brian Kemp postponed a trip to Los Angeles to promote his state's film industry after movie executives and celebrities vowed to boycott working in his state. His Democratic opponent in 2018, Stacey Abrams, and Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, are scheduled to go to LA next week to urge them to not boycott Georgia but instead back candidates opposing the bill.

Two abortion rights groups groups -- NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia and Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates -- have announced a six-figure campaign to oust state legislators who supported the bill.

While it might help Kemp with his political base in rural Georgia, Democrats say the abortion bill could hurt Republicans like Unterman who seeks to represent the historically conservative yet increasingly diverse district. The retiring five-term Rep. Rob Woodall won his reelection race by fewer than 500 votes in 2018.

Carolyn Bourdeaux, the Democratic challenger, is running again.

Bourdeaux, a Georgia State University professor who will face state House Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero and other Democrats in the primary, told CNN that the abortion bill is the "tip of the spear" in her campaign's message on health care.

"It is something that obviously deeply angers women," Bourdeaux said. "I don't think we expected to be relitigating the 1960s and 1970s here in the 21st century."

Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster working for Bourdeaux, views the heartbeat bill as another Republican misfire in the culture wars, on par with a 2016 "religious liberty" bill giving greater legal protections to deny services to members of the LGBT community that then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed amid backlash from the business community.

In an implicit rebuke to critics of her abortion bill, Unterman's campaign launch on Thursday evening was marked by the support of women, who gave the prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, and spoke on her behalf. Unterman's speech focused on issues uniting conservatives before and after the Trump era, calling for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, to fix a broken health care system and build the border wall.

In alluding to her abortion fight, Unterman claimed she had the courage to fight for "the most vulnerable citizens of our society" including the unborn and said she would "promote a culture that honors life."

Unterman ended her speech to Martina McBride's "This One's For The Girls" and invited women on stage to dance. But behind them a small group of protesters, who stood on a low brick wall to be seen above Unterman supporters, bopped along, waving signs for safe, legal abortions.

Some of Unterman's supporters think her bill will help her in the House Republican primary against Lynne Homrich, a former Home Depot executive, and other Republicans. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican representing Georgia in the US House, said if state House Rep. Todd Jones runs, the GOP primary will likely have to hold a run-off election, which occurs when no candidate wins a majority of votes. (An adviser for Homrich did not reply to a request for comment asking about her position on the "heartbeat" bill.)

Georgia Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller told CNN of the bill: "I will tell you this: there was no stronger advocate for it than Renee Unterman."

"She was the one who got it across the finish line," Miller continued.

But when asked how Unterman's support of the legislation would fare in the general election, he said, "You can't win all the games until you win the first game."

"Right now, you're going to focus on the primary," he added.

For her part, Bourdeaux said she supported the framework found by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, which essentially forbid regulation of first-trimester abortions and allowed for states to regulate abortions in the second trimester and prohibit abortions in the third trimester, except if it was necessary to preserve the woman's health. Later Supreme Court rulings have altered that framework.

"What I do not believe in is putting women in prison for having an abortion after six weeks," Bourdeaux said.

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