Abortion Rights Hitting Midterm Stage as Democrats Push on Issue

  • Issue could be key for party in N.H., Nevada Senate races
  • Backlash seen after Supreme Court declined to block Texas law

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The threat to abortion rights will be a major theme for Democrats in midterm election campaigns, as Congress weighs in with legislation and candidates seize on the issue to rally key constituencies, particularly women.

Democrats say abortion could be a decisive issue in Senate races in New Hampshire, Nevada, and beyond that will decide which party controls the chamber.

Opposition to abortion has helped Republicans turn out social conservative voters for 50 years, but Democrats hope the shoe will be on the other foot in next year’s elections. They see a growing backlash after the elevation of three Donald Trump-appointed justices to the Supreme Court and the court’s recent refusal to block a Texas law that prohibits abortion after six weeks, effectively banning the procedure.

The controversy is already being highlighted by a progressive group’s seven-figure ad buy in the Granite State, where Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) is hammering her possible opponent, Gov. Chris Sununu (R), for taking action to curb abortion rights.

“New Hampshire has seen unprecedented threats to reproductive health care over the past few months, with the governor signing a budget that includes an abortion ban and mandatory ultrasounds and the Executive Council defunding Planned Parenthood,” Hassan said in an email in which she pledged to fight for abortion rights.

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Even though Sununu says that he, like Hassan, supports abortion rights, Democrats hope for a race that focuses on the governor’s recent actions restricting them. Their message: Senators are needed to confirm judges that will protect women’s rights.

Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Unbendable Media
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) faces a possible 2022 challenge from Gov. Chris Sununu (R).

Abortion Ban

TV and digital ads that began running in the state on Sept. 23 are sponsored by a nonprofit group called Amplify New Hampshire. The ads target Sununu, who hasn’t said whether he will run for the Senate or for re-election, for signing the budget law in July that bans almost all abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Republicans took control the New Hampshire legislature last year and moved quickly to pass anti-abortion-rights legislation, even though most voters in the state don’t support it, said state Sen. Becky Whitley, a Democrat who was involved in the state legislative debate. The state Executive Council, an elected board that approves state contracts of $10,000 or more, also voted this month to cut off contracts for Planned Parenthood clinics providing abortions, though Sununu said he opposed the move.

Protecting access to abortions “has been a bipartisan issue” for New Hampshire voters, Whitley said in a phone interview, noting that the state motto is “Live Free or Die.” The issue has been a key to Democrats winning nearly all federal elections over the last decade, she said, even as Republicans remained strong at the state level.

Weakening Position

Sununu’s allies said the focus on abortion distorts his position to try to weaken the governor’s favorable position with New Hampshire voters.

“Sununu is pro-choice and was lucky to win his first gubernatorial primary in spite of that,” said Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman, who said in an email he also favors abortion rights.

“I think the reason the Democrats are out aggressively pushing the abortion issue today is because, when they look at the head-to-head polls, Sununu easily beats Hassan,” Duprey added. “They are grasping for any issues they can find early on to see if it sticks.”

Sununu, whose family has been prominent in New Hampshire politics for generations, had a 64% approval rating in a St. Anselm College Survey Center poll published Aug. 31, while Hassan’s was at 44%. Sununu led a hypothetical matchup with Hassan 49% to 40%.

In Washington, Democratic leaders have also sought to galvanize supporters in the wake of the Supreme Court’s refusal to block the Texas law. The House last week passed a measure (H.R. 3755) to protect abortion rights. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer(D-N.Y.) has also said he would bring up the bill, it faces an uphill battle in that chamber, where 60 votes would be needed for passage.

Across the Country

Democrats are pushing a national message on abortion, according to Jazmin Vargas, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“The freedom for women to make our own health care decisions is on the ballot in 2022 and in key Senate battleground states,” Vargas said in an email. “We must defend a Democratic Senate majority with the power to confirm or reject Supreme Court justices.”

The abortion issue may be especially potent in states, like New Hampshire and Nevada, where female Democratic senators may face male Republican challengers.

In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is likely to face Republican Adam Laxalt, the son and grandson of former senators who lost a 2018 bid for governor.

The election will provide a sharp contrast on the abortion issue, as Laxalt has taken strongly anti-abortion positions. As Nevada attorney general until 2019, Laxalt supported legal challenges by other states to restrict abortion access. Laxalt suggested when he ran for governor he might try to roll back a 1990 Nevada referendum protecting abortion rights, which passed with support of 63% of voters.

“Nevadans overwhelmingly believe that a woman should be able to make her own health care decisions, and I have always worked to protect that fundamental freedom,” Cortez Masto said in an email.

Laxalt “is — and always has been — unapologetically pro-life,” Laxalt spokesman John Burke said in an email. “As Nevada’s senator he will vigorously oppose the barbarism of partial birth abortions and taxpayer-funded abortions while standing up for the rights of the unborn to live.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bloombergindustry.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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