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Democrats are happy to talk about abortion whenever possible in tight gubernatorial races. Republicans keep trying to switch the conversation.
That’s because Kansas changed everything.
On Aug. 2, 59% of voters rejected a proposal to change the Kansas Constitution to declare there’s no right to an abortion.
Democrats now see an opportunity to gain political advantage by presenting themselves as the party that will preserve abortion access. Meanwhile, in ads and debates, Republicans have shifted away from a topic that might not be a winner for their candidates.
It shows in states including Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona, where new digital ads from the conservative group Independent Women’s Voice attempt to move the discussion to crime, education, and the economy and away from the overturning of the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.
“It isn’t 1973 anymore,” an older woman says in the spot. Clasping hands with a younger woman, she says both will keep fighting for abortion access, “but we must send a message on other issues hurting other people every day.”
Nov. 8 will provide the first clear picture of abortion’s impact in a general election and not just a yes-or-no referendum, said Susan Liebell, a political science professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
Women, along with young voters, drove a boost in voter registration this summer before the Kansas primary, which featured a ballot question on abortion access, but they’re not necessarily single-issue voters, she said in an interview.
“We haven’t polled with an eye to the impact of reproductive services on the economic, social, cultural, religious, political lives of the people who can become pregnant,” she said. “Now we’re trying to discover how they really think about reproductive services.”
Before the US Supreme Court ruled in June that there’s no federal right to end a pregnancy, Republicans saw abortion as a motivator for GOP voters who want to ban it, Liebell said. Democrats didn’t push the issue because of federal legal precedents, now overturned.
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Now Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and EMILY’s List are committing $150 million to keep abortion in front of voters this year in states including Kansas, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin.
And Democrats themselves are talking about abortion to try to drive voter turnout. Ads from their campaigns and from their supporters describe the position of Republican opponents as extreme, radical, and a danger to an individual’s rights.
Pennsylvania’s GOP nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, made a total abortion ban a prominent part of his primary platform. In recent months, though, his limited TV appearances and social media messages focus on his military service and Christian faith; opposition to a climate plan established by term-limited Gov. Tom Wolf (D); and attacking Democrats’ policies regarding crime and transgender people.
The Democrat in the race, Josh Shapiro, promises to veto any abortion ban approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
His campaign ads play up Mastriano’s abortion stance as a threat to Pennsylvanians’ jobs and way of life. A total abortion ban is part of “a political agenda meant to burn it all down,” says one recent Shapiro campaign ad that attempts to paint Mastriano as “extreme and way too dangerous for Pennsylvania.”
To advance through the Republican gubernatorial primary in Wisconsin, nominee Tim Michels said abortion should be criminalized without exceptions for rape or incest.
He has since said he would sign a bill allowing exceptions.
In his campaign ads, Gov. Tony Evers (D) highlighted Michels’ earlier talking points. “Is that the kind of divisive radical you want as your governor?” one Evers spot asks.
Those commercials are part of a $57 million push from Democrats and their allies to keep Evers in office, where he could block any attempt by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature to bring the state’s 1849 abortion ban in line with post-Roe laws even as it’s being challenged in court.
The GOP so far has spent $56.7 million to advertisements in what could shape up to be the most expensive governor’s race this year.
Tina Kotek (D), running to be Oregon’s governor, noted in an Oct. 4 debate that even if lawmakers don’t move to restrict abortion, the state’s next leader would have the power to decide how much would be appropriated for state-paid reproductive care.
Abortion is legal at all stages of pregnancy in Oregon, and a 2017 law requires insurance companies to cover abortion at no cost to the patient. This year, lawmakers created a $15 million fund to help people outside Oregon access an abortion.
The independent candidate in that race, Betsy Johnson, said in the debate she’d continue policies supporting abortion rights. Republican Christine Drazan said she opposes abortion but “will in fact enforce existing laws and will not change existing laws.”
Kotek and Johnson “would like to make you believe that choice is on the ballot. It’s not,” Drazan said. “Do not be manipulated by people that just want to hold on to power.”
Even where the governor wouldn’t be the last person to sign or veto a ban, abortion is a talking point.
Nevada voters in 1990 approved the right to an abortion up to 24 weeks, which protects it from legislative repeal. That’s not keeping Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) from attacking Republican challenger Joe Lombardo as anti-abortion.
Lombardo said at an Oct. 2 debate that abortion is codified in state law, though he previously said he would support a 13-week ban.
“It’s a vote of the people and if the people want to change it I will support that,” he said.
And back in Kansas, where the ballot initiative rattled political calculations, Laura Kelly is the only Democratic incumbent running for a second term as governor in a state won twice by Donald Trump.
She and her opponent are largely talking about the economy, taxes, and education.
But when she and Republican Derek Schmidt debated, the subject of abortion came up.
Schmidt said the decision by voters must be respected but “does not mean the discussion has ended. It will continue.”
With assistance from Stephen Joyce, Tiffany Stecker, Alex Ebert, and Brenna Goth
To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Kay in Miami at firstname.lastname@example.org