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Women’s health political fights heat up in battleground states

Opponents and supporters of abortion rights gear up for record-setting advocacy campaigns

Control of state governments, Congress and the White House could depend on the ability of proponents and opponents of abortion rights to turn out core supporters. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Control of state governments, Congress and the White House could depend on the ability of proponents and opponents of abortion rights to turn out core supporters. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Fights over abortion and birth control in all three branches of government are fueling record-setting advocacy campaigns by liberal and conservative groups ahead of the 2020 elections.

Control of state governments, Congress and the White House could depend on special interests turning out core supporters and elevating issues such as the Supreme Court’s consideration this term of a potentially landmark abortion case.

The combination of the 5-4 right-leaning Supreme Court majority and the passage of state laws that would effectively abolish abortion “have really made the stakes of the 2020 election especially clear to voters,” said Greg Koger, a University of Miami political science professor. “Voters are probably going to be more inclined to take the abortion positions of candidates seriously in the 2020 cycle because they may actually be translated into law.”

The conservative Susan B. Anthony List and its super PAC as well as the liberal Planned Parenthood’s PAC have already committed to spending over $40 million each in the 2019-2020 campaign cycle, which they say would set records. Other groups focused on these issues are likely to announce more.

By comparison, SBA List and its super PAC, Women Speak Out, spent about $18 million in the 2016 cycle, while Planned Parenthood Action Fund spent about $30 million during that time, which was double its 2012 spending.

SBA List plans to knock on 4 million doors, compared with 1.1 million in 2016. Planned Parenthood plans to reach 5 million voters this year, compared with its 3 million goal in 2016.

Abortion opponents are eager to reelect President Donald Trump, who has carried out restrictive policies including limiting foreign aid to groups that provide abortions or referrals. The administration is also embroiled in a legal fight to limit federal family planning funds in the United States.

Republican state lawmakers also passed numerous abortion restrictions this year, with the goal of a legal challenge rising to the Supreme Court. In Washington, the GOP-controlled Senate confirmed judicial nominees at all levels perceived to be anti-abortion.

During the campaign season, the Supreme Court will decide an important case about whether Louisiana can enforce a law that requires abortion providers to have local hospital admitting privileges.

One in three Americans rank abortion as a top 2020 election issue, a Monmouth University poll in June found, with more Democrats prioritizing it than Republicans.

Abortion “is being highlighted as a way for Democrats to communicate the threat that Republicans pose for their vision of what the country should be,” said Joshua C. Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

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Fighting on the right

Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for SBA List, said her group has “a very aggressive plan for 2020.”

It is already contacting Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina voters.

March for Life Action, which hosts an annual event that attracts thousands to Washington, is also eyeing the presidential race.

“While we don’t endorse in races … unless a miracle candidate comes out on the Democratic side, I do think there’s going to be a considerable contrast between the two candidates, and it’ll be very different than 2016,” said Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action.

One key difference: Trump’s track record.

“The difference between the 2016 election and now is that we have a list a mile long of President Trump’s pro-life accomplishments. He has, without a doubt, been the most pro-life president in our nation’s history,” Quigley said.

Senate battleground states are targets for groups such as Students for Life Action.

In Arizona, Republican Sen. Martha McSally is being challenged by Democrat Mark Kelly. Anti-abortion groups canvassed aggressively last cycle for McSally, who lost a Senate race but was later appointed to the seat of the late GOP Sen. John McCain. Kelly, a retired astronaut, is backed by Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

“Given the ongoing possibility of Supreme Court nominations, Senate races are going to be important,” Students for Life Action spokeswoman Kristi Hamrick said.

Besides Arizona, Hamrick said the group is also watching Senate races in Michigan, Minnesota and North Carolina and the presidential battlegrounds of Ohio and Wisconsin. Her group targets young voters, so its focus is on social media.

Fighting on the left

Groups that support abortion rights have already endorsed many congressional candidates.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund last month endorsed 90 Democrats for House and Senate office and committed to spending $45 million — its largest electoral program to date. The group is set on reelecting Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Gary Peters of Michigan and Tina Smith of Minnesota, a former Planned Parenthood executive.

Recent state abortion bans “continued this flight of voters in the suburbs that used to view themselves as moderate Republicans toward the Democratic Party,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. “That’s incredibly significant.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said Democrat Andy Beshear’s victory over GOP Gov. Matt Bevin in Kentucky could foreshadow races next year, calling it “an important indicator of how we win in 2020.”

Races to watch

While Trump’s coattails did not help Bevin, the increased turnout in a presidential election year could make a difference in key House races and Senate battles.

In Illinois, Marie Newman has again launched a primary challenge to Rep. Daniel Lipinski, who co-chairs the House Pro-Life Caucus and is one of the few Democrats to vote against abortion. NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s List all back Newman, who lost narrowly to Lipinski in 2018.

“Presidential turnout is almost certainly going to be helpful to her cause. She has more partners engaging earlier on her behalf. I think we’re going to see a different electorate… and hopefully a different outcome,” Ray said.

Quigley of SBA List said Lipinski benefited from a “very large expenditure in his primary last time” but anti-abortion groups have not yet committed to investing this cycle.

In Texas, former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who gained national attention in 2013 for a 13-hour filibuster to block a bill restricting access to abortions, is challenging GOP Rep. Chip Roy. Fresh off her attention-getting filibuster, Davis was trounced by 20 points in her 2014 bid for Texas governor.

Three GOP-held Senate seats that will go a long way in deciding party control are also on the radar: Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Arizona’s McSally, and Maine’s Susan Collins. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Iowa race Leans Republican, Arizona a Toss-up and Maine Tilts Republican.

Democrats Theresa Greenfield in Iowa and Sara Gideon in Maine have the support of NARAL Pro-Choice America and other abortion rights supporters.

While Collins typically opposes legislation that limits abortion, her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch have cost her support from some liberal groups.

Alabama’s Senate race, where Democrat Doug Jones is viewed as the most vulnerable senator of either party seeking reelection, is also one to watch.

Alabama state lawmakers passed the most restrictive abortion ban in the country earlier this year, though it’s been blocked so far in federal court.

“It’s a highly salient issue in the state of Alabama,” Koger said, “because it’s set in these stark terms of, ‘Do you want to completely abolish access to abortion?’”

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