ATLANTA (AP) -- The four Georgia Republicans who want to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss all call themselves conservatives who oppose abortion.
Two are congressmen who recently voted in favor of a House bill to outlaw nearly all abortions beyond the 20th week after conception. Another candidate, a former secretary of state with her own national profile in the abortion debate, expressed support for the measure. Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Broun, an obstetrician, voted against it, saying it didn't go far enough. That vote put him alongside abortion-rights advocates yet it garnered a de facto endorsement from a leading anti-abortion group in Georgia.
The divide exposes fault lines in an already divisive primary that some party figures worry could set up a repeat of 2012 losses in Missouri and Indiana, GOP-leaning states where Democrats successfully cast Republican Senate nominees as out of the mainstream based mostly on their views on abortion.
Broun, a conservative who has called President Barack Obama a Marxist and who drew national attention last year when he declared evolutionary theory "lies from the pit of hell," defends his outlier vote -- just six Republicans voted against the bill -- because the proposal contains exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.
As he put it: "I am extremely disappointed that House Republican leadership chose to include language to subject some unborn children to needless pain and suffering."
While Republicans rule state politics in Georgia, strategists in both parties say Broun pulls the GOP primary field further to the right. That potentially gives Democrats an opening for the 2014 election in a state that Obama lost by single digits in 2008 and 2012 at a time when an influx of minority voters is making Georgia fertile future ground for the president's party.
The GOP can't afford to lose a Georgia seat it already holds as the party tries to gain the six seats necessary to win Senate control for the last two years of the Democratic president's term. No Democrats have officially entered the race, though Atlanta philanthropy executive Michelle Nunn is mulling a bid. Her father, Democrat Sam Nunn, represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate.
In the Republican primary, abortion probably won't be the only consideration for most voters. But it could affect the result in a crowded primary field in which the margins likely will be close and a runoff could be needed.
Rep. Jack Kingston, who voted for the 20-week abortion ban, said Broun's vote is an "irresponsible approach" for someone who opposes abortion rights. "The question is whether unborn children are more protected with this law," Kingston said. "As we live in this post Roe v. Wade world, the reality is that we have to play chess, not checkers." Kingston said he'll always support exceptions on abortion bans in cases of rape, incest and medical necessity to protect the life of a pregnant woman.
Karen Handel, the former secretary of state, said, "I certainly respect the views of those who didn't support that bill. But that sort of all-or-nothing approach is what's wrong with Washington." Handel supports rape and incest exceptions, saying: "For women in those horrible circumstances, that is something for them to work through with their family, their church and their faith counselor."
An aide to Rep. Phil Gingrey positioned her boss between Broun and the other candidates.
Jen Talaber said Gingrey wasn't pleased with the exceptions, but "supported the bill because it saves lives." Gingrey, also an obstetrician, has already walked a fine line on abortion. He publicly defended as "partly right" failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's claim last year that a woman's body can avoid pregnancy from a "legitimate rape." Gingrey later apologized and called his own remarks "stupid."
The proposal itself reflects state laws that many Republican legislatures have adopted in recent years, some of them already blocked by federal courts. It won't pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, but it gives Republicans and anti-abortion advocates a key vote to measure candidates.
The National Right to Life Committee strongly supported the House bill and warned House members in a letter beforehand that a no vote would be viewed "no matter what justification is offered, as a vote to allow unlimited abortion in the sixth month or later."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the group, said Broun followed some bad advice. "We said this was the single most important pro-life legislation since the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was enacted a full decade ago," Johnson said.
But the group's state affiliate, Georgia Right to Life, praised Broun. In a letter posted on the organization's website, President Dan Becker called out Gingrey and Kingston as "Georgia politicians who say one thing and vote another." Becker then went on to issue a de facto endorsement, saying "Let's elect (Broun) our new U.S. senator."