Abrams tries to focus her rematch with Kemp in Georgia on abortion

Stacey Abrams, left, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, is up against Republican incumbent Brian Kemp. Abrams has found an issue to center her campaign around as Election Day approaches: protecting abortion rights in Georgia.

By Eva McKend and Michael Warren, CNN

(CNN) -- Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, is up against a GOP incumbent in a generally favorable Republican environment, while trying to meet the high expectations following her narrow defeat in the 2018 race. But she's found an issue to center her campaign around as Election Day approaches: protecting abortion rights in Georgia.

"It's going to be front and center in the conversation," Abrams told CNN in an interview Saturday while campaigning at a farmers market in Atlanta.

In particular, Abrams has focused on a 2019 law signed by her Republican rival, Gov. Brian Kemp, that bans most abortions when early cardiac activity is detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy -- when many women don't yet know they're pregnant. After initially being blocked, the law went into effect earlier this year following the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade -- a decision that has energized Democrats across the country, helping shift the midterm political landscape into more unsettled territory. Abrams is testing how much the issue can shift things in her favor in a state President Joe Biden narrowly carried in 2020, but that has long voted Republican.

"Women deserve full citizenship in the United States and certainly in the state of Georgia, and they are being denied that because of Brian Kemp's 6-week ban," said Abrams, who lost to Kemp by fewer than 2 points four years ago. She says she hears from outraged health care providers as she travels the state. "We are driving not only doctors and nurses out of the state, we're likely going to drive jobs away. And that should be terrifying to anyone regardless of your political persuasion."

Meanwhile, the Republican governor has stood by the law, which provides some exceptions, and has otherwise stayed focused on pocketbook issues. When asked by CNN about South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's recent proposal for a nationwide ban on most abortions after 15 weeks, his campaign said Kemp has "consistently affirmed" his opposition to abortion.

"Rather than be sidetracked by the latest national media frenzy, he will continue to focus on bringing hardworking Georgians relief from 40-year-high inflation through tax relief and creating economic opportunities in every corner of the state," Kemp campaign spokesman Tate Mitchell said in an emailed statement.

The different approaches from Abrams and Kemp reflect their divergent theories about what drives swing voters in a state where elections have been increasingly decided by slim margins. Georgia is also home to one of the most high-profile Senate races of the year, as Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock runs for a full six-year term. Nationally, Democrats have been encouraged by both polling and better-than-expected outcomes in recent special elections that signaled opposition to restrictions on abortion rights. But Republicans are betting that voters are more concerned about inflation and other pressing economic issues.

A September Quinnipiac poll shows just how close the race is, with 50% of likely voters supporting Kemp and 48% supporting Abrams. Quinnipiac found 57% of likely voters in Georgia say it's very important a candidate shares their views on abortion. Within that group, 63% back Abrams and 36% support Kemp. But in the same poll, 41% of likely voters ranked "inflation" as the most urgent issue facing Georgia, while just 12% said the same of "abortion." The numbers were similar in a new Marist poll, which found 40% of registered voters in Georgia ranked "inflation" as the most important issue this election and just 16% saying the same about "abortion." The Marist poll found 50% of registered voters supporting Kemp and 44% supporting Abrams.

"Governor Kemp's position is his position, and there's much more important issues for the state of Georgia than just the abortion issue," Dr. Barry Zisholtz, a Kemp supporter, told CNN following the governor's remarks at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum Sunday in Sandy Springs. "People want to make it just about one issue, but I think people need to be concerned about paying for their groceries and for gasoline too."

But Abrams supporters say abortion could be a deciding factor that could sway women who previously voted for Kemp.

"I think it could be the difference in our state," said Rosa Thurnher, an owner of an Atlanta Mexican restaurant who was at the farmers market Saturday.

"I'm hoping that women can be kind to other women and just know that we need to make some changes, and protect this right, for our future generations for our fellow sisters."

Abrams' evolution on abortion

The daughter of Methodist pastors with roots in Southern Mississippi, Abrams has not always advocated for abortion rights. At an Emily's List Gala in May she detailed how, as a teenager, she regretted dismissing a friend who suggested she needed an abortion.

Abrams went on to say that as a young professional, when she thought more deeply about her views, she realized her position had changed.

"I was wrong but I worked hard to make myself right," she said at the gala.

Today, Abrams does not support any government restrictions on abortion, arguing it is a medical issue that should not be bound by "arbitrary" timelines. On the trail, she talks about her personal evolution on abortion and amplified the issue last month at a roundtable for women who suffered pregnancy loss.

Since the Supreme Court's decision this summer, Abrams' campaign has gone after Kemp hard on abortion.

One of her TV ads calls Kemp's position on abortion "extreme and dangerous" and says he "signed the most extreme abortion law in the nation." The ad goes on to suggest Kemp would seek even more restrictions than the current state law, based on his personal opposition to abortion.

And some anti-abortion activists are pushing for the governor to go farther. Georgia Right to Life is circulating among activist groups a petition, first reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and obtained by CNN, designed to pressure Kemp to call a special session of the general assembly to pass legislation that would ban practically all abortions in the state.

"We have no plans to call a special session and the governor has made abundantly clear that his focus is on implementing the 2019 legislation," said Kemp spokesman Cody Hall.

Staying focused on the economy

While Kemp says he is committed to enforcing the current abortion law, he has taken a less strident tone on the issue than some of his fellow Republicans nationally.

"I understand people may disagree on when an abortion should be legal or when it shouldn't be," he said at a campaign event last week in Atlanta.

When asked about the issue on the trail, Kemp frequently brings up his wife, Marty, and his three adult daughters. He touts the limits on abortion he signed into law but also mentions other policy initiatives he says demonstrate that his administration respects "the sanctity of life."

"We've also done adoption reform. We have done foster care reform," Kemp said last week at a conference put on by the Family Research Council, a conservative interest group.

But the governor is quick to pivot to economic issues -- from criticizing President Joe Biden's record on inflation to talking up his own record on economic development and willingness to keep businesses and churches open in the state during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A person familiar with the campaign tells CNN that Kemp's internal data suggest inflation and the cost of living remain the most important issues in voters' minds -- with abortion farther down the list of concerns.

But Democrats remain convinced the restriction of abortion has opened up independent and even Republican voters to supporting Abrams.

"I think that her stance on abortion is going to help her in the election. ... Folks who are pro-life or anti-abortion try to make abortion seem like a partisan issue, but I don't think it actually is," said Cazembe Murphy Jackson, a Jonesboro-based community organizer.

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