In Special Election, Abortion Rights Could Send Georgia Voters to the Polls

Pro-choice and anti-choice groups have spent almost $1 million on the race.

Jon Ossoff has said he is committed to defending reproductive rights. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Abortion access and reproductive health are being used to target voters in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, located in Atlanta’s conservative-leaning northwest suburbs, in the hopes of driving voter turnout ahead of the June 20 special election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.

The race has seen record-breaking sums of money raised and spent with most recent totals reportedly at roughly $40 million. Early voting turnout for the runoff has already exceeded 100,000 ballots, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, nearly double the advance votes in the April 18 special election.

Just under $1 million has been spent on the race by pro-choice and anti-choice groups, according to campaign finance filings available through the Federal Election Committee as of June 13. More than $620,000 of those dollars have been spent by Planned Parenthood Action Fund Inc. in support of Ossoff, while another $240,000 has been spent by Planned Parenthood Action Fund Inc. and NARAL Pro-Choice America in opposition to Handel. The anti-choice groups involved in the race have spent a combined $66,000 supporting Handel, and just $16,000 opposing Ossoff.

James Owens, states communications director for NARAL, told Rewire in an interview that the organization decided to target a small universe of pro-choice voters who cast ballots in the April 18 election and urge them to vote again in the June 20 runoff.

“What NARAL sees as our mission is to specifically talk to those people who are pro-choice, who vote their values, and who might otherwise drop off and, for one reason or another, not be able to cast that ballot in the run-off election, and making sure that they do show up,” Owens said.

So far, NARAL has targeted these voters with an online video, three mailers, and regular calls from NARAL and their members.

NARAL Pro-Choice America’s political arm has spent about a tenth of what Planned Parenthood’s PAC has, just over $79,000. All of NARAL’s funds have been spent in opposition to Handel. Planned Parenthood has by far been the biggest spender among all the pro-choice and anti-choice groups with registered PACs. Planned Parenthood Action Fund Inc. has spent $784,000 in the district, nearly 80 percent of that spent in support of Ossoff’s candidacy.

Ossoff has said he is committed to defending reproductive rights, and his campaign site includes a promise to “defend women’s access to contraception and a woman’s right to choose and fight any legislation or executive action that would allow insurance companies to discriminate against women.”

The online video produced by NARAL focuses on Handel’s attempt to strip funds from Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings and mammogram referrals during her tenure at the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The 30-second spot asks why Handel “decide[d] to focus on her personal opposition to abortion [at Komen], even when it meant our mothers, sisters, and daughters might die of breast cancer.”

Handel’s time at the Komen Foundation has received a great deal of attention during the race, surfacing again during the most recent debate between the candidates. When asked directly about her involvement in the Komen Foundation’s decision to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, Handel defended the move.

Owens said Ossoff’s stance as a pro-choice candidate is clear, and the organization wanted to make sure the voters they are targeting were reminded of Handel’s anti-choice positions.

“Elections are yes, about our values and they’re about our plans for the future, and they are also as much about contrast,” Owens explained. “And in this case, painting that contrast has not only been very important for voters, because they already know that Jon Ossoff is a pro-choice candidate, it’s also been very effective.”

That contrast was noted by Emily Matson, chair of Georgia Life Alliance Action Fund, an anti-choice super PAC, and former executive director of its anchor organization, Georgia Life Alliance (GLA), in a Thursday interview with Rewire. “I think the issue of life is a very clear differential between the candidates, and everybody’s talking about it being one of the most clear distinctions between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff,” Matson said.

The Georgia Life Alliance Action Fund has spent about $17,500 on the race so far, according to the most recent filings. Georgia Life Alliance is the state affiliate of National Right to Life. The National Right to Life Victory Fund has spent a little over $6,000 in support of Handel, while the Susan B. Anthony List has spent just under $58,000 so far, with about 75 percent of that going to support Handel.

Matson shared her belief that abortion is an issue that drives voter turnout.

“I think the issue of whether or not abortion on demand is something that our laws and our taxes should support, I think studies show that that has the ability to affect [election outcomes],” Matson said. (The Hyde Amendment already bans federal funding for abortion.) “I do think it’s probably one of the two main issues in this race.”

The ad spot produced by GLA Action Fund portrays Planned Parenthood and Ossoff as offering women “only one choice” when it comes to pregnancy outcomes. The video is primarily being shared with voters through online platforms.

GLA has certified Handel as a “pro-life” candidate. The organization’s criteria, Matson explained, includes multiple factors, not the least of which is a questionnaire that gets sent to all candidates.

“It’s more the overall value of humanity as being a priority that should be advanced legislatively,” Matson said. “When we pick someone to target our efforts toward, it has to do with the questionnaire, it has to do with their reputation, their public statements, it also has to do with just with their overall values. And that’s what’s going to play out, I think, when they are given legislation.”

On the GLA questionnaire, Handel agreed that abortion should be criminalized, noting she supports exceptions for cases of “reported” rape, “reported” incest, or life endangerment.

Handel answered the last question—“Under what circumstances, if any, do you believe that abortion should be legal?”—by saying, “Life begins at conception, and I believe that abortion under any circumstances is morally wrong. An America where all abortions are viewed as abhorrent and unthinkable in any situation is one we must all aspire to and work towards.”

“As we do this, legislation that includes these exceptions has a much better chance of passage, and I support efforts to create a more pro-life culture, even if we are doing so incrementally—because saving one baby is better than saving none,” Handel added.

“I think it’s clear that National Right to Life Victory Fund and Georgia Life Alliance Action Fund, you know, are aligned on hoping to get Karen Handel elected,” Matson said.

“This race highlights, I think, the duty and the opportunity that both National Right to Life Victory Fund and GLA Action Fund have. There’s a completely symbiotic relationship as far as the benefit in having a pro-lifer elected to the Sixth District,” she added.

“It’s a very clear difference between the candidates, and it’s something that has the potential to affect the ultimate outcome of the race,” Matson said.

Whichever candidate is sent to Washington, issues of abortion access and family planning are sure to surface again and again under the leadership of a decidedly anti-choice administration . The Trump administration has already reinstated the “global gag rule,” which prevents international organizations from receiving aid if they provide referrals or counseling about abortion, and is seeking to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit. Meanwhile, House Republicans sought to use their health care bill to defund Planned Parenthood for one year through their wildly unpopular health care repeal bill.

National Right to Life and Susan B. Anthony did not respond to requests for comment from Rewire. Planned Parenthood was unable to respond by publication time.