Walker report puts abortion back at center of Georgia race

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FILE - U.S. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, wearing a "I'm a Georgia Voter" sticker, leaves a press conference after casting his primary ballot Friday, May 6, 2022 in Atlanta, Ga., during early voting. In Georgias pivotal U.S. Senate race, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, have each sought to cast the other as the extremist on abortion while deflecting questions about the finer points of their own positions on the issue. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

ATLANTA – In Georgia’s pivotal U.S. Senate race, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, have each been laboring to cast the other as an extremist on abortion while deflecting questions about the finer points of their own positions.

The sidestepping by Warnock, who supports abortion rights, and Walker, who has called for a national ban, reflects the sensitivity of abortion politics in a post-Roe v. Wade America, where the procedure is open to regulation by state governments and, potentially, by Congress.

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But Walker’s strategy may not work much longer after The Daily Beast reported Monday that the former University of Georgia and NFL football star encouraged and paid for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009 — a blatant contradiction of his staunch claims that there’s “no excuse” for a procedure he characterizes as “killing.” Walker calls the report a “flat-out lie."

The story propelled the issue of abortion back to the center of the race in the closing weeks of the campaign — and just ahead of the candidates’ Oct. 14 debate. The contest is one of the most consequential in the country this midterm season and could determine which party controls the Senate for the second half of President Joe Biden’s first term in office.

Abortion is an issue in other Senate races as well, including Colorado, Florida and North Carolina.

The Daily Beast interviewed a woman who identified herself as a former girlfriend of Walker's and asked that her name not be disclosed out of concerns for her privacy. She provided a receipt indicating she had paid $575 for an abortion, as well as a get-well card from Walker and bank deposit records showing the image of a $700 personal check from Walker dated five days after the abortion receipt.

At the least, the report complicates Walker’s effort to use abortion as an issue against Warnock. And it underscores the sometimes-delicate task that confronts other candidates from both major parties who hope to use the issue ahead of the midterm elections.

For decades under Roe, Republicans like Walker were able to call themselves “pro-life” and blast “abortion on demand,” perhaps even expressing support for absolute or near-total bans that federal courts were certain to strike down. Democrats, meanwhile, could oppose such Republican efforts as draconian.

All sides knew it it would be the Supreme Court, not them, making any ultimate decision.

But with the high court in June overturning the 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationwide, the issue has become one of the animating variables of the 2022 midterm campaigns. The most conservative anti-abortion groups want a national ban, with some going so far as to oppose even exceptions in cases involving rape, incest or health risks to a pregnant woman. Abortion rights group, meanwhile, are reticent to back any limits on abortion access, including later in pregnancy.

As a whole, Americans have nuanced views on abortion, though a clear majority support at least some access.

A July AP-NORC poll showed 63% of U.S. adults said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 36% thought it should be illegal in all or most cases. Some 31% said always legal, just 9% illegal in all cases. That leaves politicians to navigate varied opinions across a big swath of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Walker has questioned how Warnock, a pastor, could support abortion rights. “God told me thou shalt not kill,” he is fond of saying, referring to one of the Ten Commandments in Judeo-Christian holy texts.

At a campaign stop in July, he said of Warnock: “Why is he saying you can have an abortion at nine months?” Why does he "want to have a young woman kill her baby?”

Warnock, for his part, told voters as recently as Monday night that he has both “a profound reverence for life” and “an abiding respect for choice," declaring the government does not belong in a patient’s room.

When questioned by reporters for more details, Warnock declines to engage on whether he’d consider any abortion limits as part of reestablishing a national right.

Asked last week whether he’d support a federal bill codifying the previous Supreme Court standard — essentially allowing most elective abortions up to the point a fetus is viable, with states able to place some regulations even before then — Warnock said, “I think that we’ve got to explore all options to protect this core constitutional principle.”

Walker’s clearest support for a total federal abortion ban came when he was running for the GOP Senate nomination. He said “there’s no exception in my mind” that should allow women to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or those that threaten their life or health.

Last month, however, he endorsed a proposal from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to ban abortions nationwide at 15 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions. The support for Graham's proposal was inconsistent with his previous stance that states should set abortion rules. A 15-week ban also would still allow many elective abortions that conservative anti-abortion groups want to outlaw.

Republicans in Washington have not necessarily embraced Graham’s proposal as the party standard.

Sen. Rick Scott, the Florida Republican who leads his party’s Senate campaign committee, tried last weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to leave wiggle room for GOP candidates.

“I don’t know if what Lindsey put out changed the conversation, but it is an important issue for the country,” he said. "Every candidate gets to make their choice.”

Scott then illuminated the gray areas in how partisans identify on abortion. He called himself “pro-life” but added that “we ought to have a reasonable restriction” and that “a lot of people are comfortable with 15 weeks” plus “exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have largely been eager to keep abortion front of mind heading into the midterms. Biden has promised to codify abortion rights into federal law, saying he needs voters to send two more Democratic senators to Washington to make it happen.

Warnock and Walker are not the only Senate candidates walking a tightrope on abortion.

Scott's Florida colleague, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, touts his personal opposition to abortion in all cases but has also said he'd back abortion-restricting statutes that include exceptions. Rubio also has avoided taking a specific stance on any federal restrictions, saying the issue is more appropriately settled state-by-state. Rubio's opponent, Rep. Val Demings, has said she supports abortion access at least until fetal viability and said physicians should determine viability.

In North Carolina, Republican nominee Ted Budd, like Walker, has expressed opposition to abortion in nearly all cases but also endorsed Graham's proposal. His opponent, Democrat Cheri Beasley, has said she would support the Roe standard as the rubric for a federal law — a move that could still allow some state-level restrictions.

In Colorado, Republican Joe O'Dea is the rare GOP candidate who has spoken out in favor of abortion rights. Trying to pull off an upset against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in the liberal-leaning state, O'Dea has called for “balance” and said abortion should be legal up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions beyond that in cases of rape, incest and health risks to a woman. That roughly tracks the Supreme Court standard before Roe.

He has opposed Graham's abortion ban proposal, though Bennet has countered by noting that O'Dea has said he would have voted to confirm President Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees, all of whom voted to scrap Roe.