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Georgia Senate runoff tests the staying power of abortion in American elections

The high-stakes Senate runoff in Georgia next week will be the first major test of abortion politics since the 2022 general election, when a backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision galvanized proponents of abortion rights and boosted Democrats.

Abortion was a major issue on Election Day in Georgia, when Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock finished about 1 point ahead of Republican rival Herschel Walker, though narrowly missing the 50% he needed to win outright. The 26% of Georgians who ranked abortion as their top issue backed Warnock by a margin of 77% to 21%, NBC News exit polls showed.

Now, Democrats see an opening to weaponize it to finish the job against Walker in the Dec. 6 runoff, when a victory would give their party a 51st Senate seat.

“On December 6th, our rights are on the ballot. Herschel Walker wants a total ban on abortion nationwide,” says a TV ad by the Democratic group Georgia Honor, playing footage of Walker calling for a “no-exception” ban. “Raphael Warnock is fighting to protect our right to make our own health care decisions,” a narrator says.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks on Capitol Hill on Dec. 7.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

Meanwhile, Walker sits at the center of a clash within the Republican Party about how to handle the issue in the new era. While some like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have sought to minimize abortion and pivot to other issues, leading anti-abortion advocates insist that’s a losing strategy and want Republicans to lean in and paint Democrats as the real extremists.

Walker is taking the approach preferred by the anti-abortion advocates, embracing their rhetoric equating abortion to infanticide and attacking Warnock for supporting legislation that would protect the right to terminate a pregnancy without legal restrictions.

“Y’all heard him talk about how he would think it’s OK to kill a baby all the way up to nine months,” Walker said Tuesday at a campaign stop in Greensboro. “It is time for him to go.”

Abortion ‘will be in play forever’

The 2022 election, in which Democrats held control of the Senate and limited their House losses, sparked a rare point of political consensus among the warring sides: The issue of abortion is here to stay — in Georgia and beyond.

“The overturn of Roe v. Wade guarantees this issue will be in play forever,” SBA Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser, which has pledged over $1 million in the runoff to help Walker, told NBC News. “Before, it was theoretical. We had a lot of interesting debates; if you ever voted on a limit, it was never going to go into effect. Now, this is real — every single state and on the federal level, there’ll be a desire to get a consensus and pass it into law.”

Dannenfelser said the election proves that downplaying abortion is a loser for the GOP: “Those who want to stay away from it are gonna get shellacked by the other side,” she said.

NBC News exit polls showed 60% of voters believe abortion should be legal, while 37% said it should be illegal. Nationally, abortion ranked as a close second on the list of top issues, and voters who cited it as their biggest concern supported Democrats by a 3-to-1 margin. Voters trusted Democrats over Republicans by a 53% to 42% margin on handling abortion.

“Abortion played a much bigger role than we’d anticipated,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said when asked why the GOP fell short.

Democrats are determined to make Republicans continue to pay a price, in Georgia and the 2024 presidential election, for assembling the Supreme Court majority that nuked Roe v. Wade and for pursuing legislation in states and in Congress to curtail abortion.

“I believe it will continue to be an issue until we can codify Roe into law for all Americans,” said Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 3 Democrat, who won re-election in Washington by double digits.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who won by 9 points in her purple state, added, “The idea that women would be relegated to second-class citizenship is a palpable concern from voters all across New Hampshire. We are the Live Free or Die state, and we mean it.”

A 15-week federal ban?

Abortion opponents point to nuances in public opinion. For instance, the NBC News national exit poll showed that 29% of voters want abortion to be legal in “all cases,” while 30% say it should be legal in “most cases,” indicating an openness to some limitations.

“The winning candidate defines their opponent’s extremism and contrasts their own consensus position — like a heartbeat- or a 15-week bill — with that position and gains the advantage,” SBA’s Dannenfelser said. “The pro-life movement will absolutely work to defeat candidates who say that there is no federal role in defining a federal protection — or that just decided they don’t want to talk about it at all.”

Still, Walker may be a less-than-ideal messenger: He faces allegations from two women who say he pressured them to have an abortion while they dated years ago. He has denied those allegations. And no-exceptions rhetoric could be out of step with voters in a divided state like Georgia.

Sen. Gary Peters, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the party’s Senate campaign arm, said abortion will remain a “permanent” feature of American elections until Republicans back down.

“A lot of folks who care deeply about this issue in our base, who are pro-choice, still care deeply about the issue,” Peters said in an interview. “But they always figured Roe v. Wade was the backstop. And so it was not the same kind of motivating factor as it was for the other side, who were trying to change the rules and get the Court to overturn half a century of precedent.”

He noted proposed bans by Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who unveiled a bill before the midterm election to outlaw it in all states after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“Clearly, the national abortion ban would have a significant impact for everybody regardless of the state that they live in,” Peters said. “Even if you live in a blue state that has protected women’s reproductive freedoms, that could be in jeopardy with a national ban. So it’ll definitely continue to be a pretty strong issue.”

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