A slew of new state laws effectively outlawing abortion has put the issue front and center in the 2020 elections, with abortion-rights groups hoping the threat galvanizes complacent liberal voters who weren’t moved by the issue in past campaigns.
An Alabama law signed last week that would ban almost all abortions, with no exemptions for victims of rape or incest, is already reverberating in the battle for control of Congress. Democratic lawmakers and abortion-rights groups say they’re seeing a surge of energy in reaction to the news, and they’re working to hammer the message that Republicans could do away with a woman’s right to end her pregnancy.
While Democrats warned in 2016 that Donald Trump could remake the Supreme Court and jeopardize abortion rights, the issue resonated more with conservative and religious voters who wanted to see Roe v. Wade struck down.Now that two conservative, Trump-nominated justices have been confirmed to the Supreme Court and states are moving aggressively to pass near-total bans on abortion in order to trigger a court review of Roe, Democrats are hoping voters’ past complacency on reproductive rights issues will be replaced by fiery motivation.
“The threat is real now,” said Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who flipped a House seat in Georgia in 2018 as part of a health care-fueled blue wave that gave Democrats control of the lower chamber. “We know that they’re pushing to take this to the Supreme Court and undo everything that’s been done for women’s health care choices. That’s what at stake.”
Democrats hope the issue will drive voters up and down the ballot, starting with the presidential race, and that they can close the intensity gap among voters who cast their ballots with an eye on the Supreme Court. But abortion is likely to be especially critical in Senate races given the chamber’s role in shaping the courts, which will decide the long-term impact of these new laws.
A half-dozen progressive grassroots groups are planning a nationwide day of action later this week to highlight the issue, and Planned Parenthood Votes is launching a six-figure digital ad buy highlighting the Alabama law and targeting female voters in six states where Republican senators are defending their seats.
“I think the chipping away at Roe maybe went under the radar,” said Teresa Tomlinson, a Democrat running to flip a Senate seat in Georgia. “But now it looks like it’s a direct assault on Roe and that’s what caught everybody’s attention.”
Democrats believe the issue will motivate voters in Colorado and Maine especially, the states Trump lost in 2016 that have Republican senators on the ballot in 2020. The majority of the 2020 Senate map, however, falls into red and purple states like Alabama, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, where Democrats need to fire up their base without turning off the moderate and Republican-leaning voters they would need to win.
But even Democrats running for reelection in very conservative states are issuing full-throated denunciations of the abortion ban signed this week in Alabama. The law, which is set to go into effect in six months unless courts step in to block it, bans abortions completely, other than an exemption if the life of the mother is in danger. Doctors who perform abortions would be charged with a felony and sentenced to up to 99 years in prison.
“It’s an extreme measure that has no place,” Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who faces a tough reelection race next year, said in an interview. “I don’t think the majority of the people in Alabama believe in extreme measures like that.”
GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne, one of Jones’ challengers, tweeted that Jones’ stance is out of touch “with the people of Alabama and our pro-life values,” and told POLITICO: “I stand with the unborn.”
In contrast, many Republicans lawmakers and party leaders have been hesitant to defend the Alabama law, with some dismissing it as a state issue and others voicing discomfort with the lack of exemptions for victims of rape and incest.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who could face her strongest Democratic challenge in years after voting to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, reiterated her belief that federal courts — including a more conservative Supreme Court — would not allow the law to stand.
“I can’t imagine a bill as extreme as Alabama’s new law would be upheld by the courts,” Collins said in a brief interview earlier this week.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who renounced his previous support for an anti-abortion “personhood” measure in his state when he left his safe Republican House district to run statewide in Colorado in 2014, said he hadn’t seen details on the new state legislation, adding: “I’m pro-life, but that’s up to the states.”
Democrats running against Gardner attacked him nevertheless: Two candidates. Dan Baer and Andrew Romanoff, sent out fundraising emails soliciting donations to abortion-rights groups, and Romanoff called the Alabama bill an “unconscionable attack on women.” Jena Griswold, the Democratic secretary of state who is considering running for Senate, said she would not authorize spending of state resources for travel to Alabama.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called it an “Alabama state issue.” Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said she was “focused on my work here,” dismissing a question about the legal challenge to Roe v. Wade the law could pose. And Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) also said he hadn’t looked at the details of the Alabama legislation, but cautioned his party against making the election about a “divisive issue” like abortion, instead of about “results” on jobs and the economy.
But Republicans insist that they aren’t concerned about the politics of abortion going into 2020. They argue Democrats’ abortion rights views have become increasingly extreme and believe Democrats rallying around abortion rights will backfire in swing and red-leaning states next fall.
“It’s going to be a big issue, and my general view is the Republican Party is where it has always been and where it ought to be: Solidly pro-life,” said Scott Jennings, a veteran GOP strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The [Democratic] Party has gone to the left and people just can’t stomach the fringe positions they’re taking.”
The bills passed this year in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio ban abortion six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy — the time at which a fetal heartbeat can usually be detected, and a time at which the majority of women do not know they are pregnant. Missouri’s bill, which now awaits the governor’s signature, would ban abortions after eight weeks.
None of the laws have taken effect. Federal courts have blocked Kentucky’s and Iowa’s abortion bans for now. Legal challenges are pending in Ohio, and groups plan to sue to stop the laws’ implementation in the remaining states.
A 2018 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans think first trimester abortions should generally be legal and 64 percent do not support overturning Roe vs. Wade, which the six-week bans and Alabama’s near-total ban aim to do. Seventy-seven percent support exemptions for victims of rape and incest.
Given the political peril of the total abortion bans, some Republican candidates and advocacy groups are working to keep the focus on the question of taxpayer funding for abortions and bans on abortions late in a woman’s pregnancy — areas where public opinion is more closely divided. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia said he supported the six-week abortion ban just enacted in his state and questioned a law passed by Democrats in New York State.
“Why are we talking about that law versus the infanticide law that was praised by the governor in New York?” Perdue said.
Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster, said she moderated focus groups in 2016 in which suburban voters were “highly skeptical” that Trump represented a serious threat to abortion rights. She expects that to change next year.
“The Supreme Court goes both ways,” Lake said. “It’s a way to energize the right wing base but it’s a way to energize mainstream America too.”
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