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Election energy revs up on abortion policy

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death is galvanizing activists on both sides

Evangeline Lancette, the 21-year-old field director for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List in Montana, is one of over 350 canvassers nationwide clocking long hours going door-to-door to speak to voters this year.

“Every time we see change, it is like making us that much more empowered to keep going every day until the end of the election,” she told CQ Roll Call. “We have been able to change many people’s minds.”

The other side of the abortion debate also is putting up a fight. Laura Terrill, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana’s vice president of external affairs, says the abortion rights group is ramping up digital advertising and virtual organizing events.

“We are running nearly a $1 million program in Montana and definitely the most far-reaching program we’ve run here in the state,” she said.

The death of liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is galvanizing activists on both sides of the abortion issue, who were already ramping up on-the-ground efforts to rally behind candidates on the national and state level as the Nov. 3 elections approach. Republicans are in sight of a 6-3 majority, the culmination of a nearly five-decade push to remake the courts after the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade case affirmed a nationwide right to abortion.

“The Supreme Court vacancy pours rocket fuel on the 2020 election,” said Tony Perkins, president of FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the anti-abortion Family Research Council.

President Donald Trump’s appointment to replace Ginsburg is expected to strengthen the high court’s conservative tilt and is a reminder of the power of the judiciary on all levels. The Montana contest — along with Senate efforts in Arizona, Maine and North Carolina — is pivotal to which party controls the Senate and, ultimately, the confirmation of federal judges who could determine the fate of legalized abortion.

Both sides committed earlier this year to spending record amounts of money to target key voters and have intensified their fundraising pushes since Ginsburg’s death last week. SBA List and its partner super PAC, Women Speak Out, planned to spend $52 million for this cycle, nearly triple the amount it spent in 2016. Since Ginsburg’s death, the group said it would spend another seven-figure amount in new contributions to push for the confirmation of Trump’s nominee.

Planned Parenthood initially budgeted $45 million, 50 percent more than its $30 million spending in 2016. Planned Parenthood Votes announced a new six-figure ad buy on Tuesday that the group says aims to protect Ginsburg’s legacy. The ad will air in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and Michigan before expanding to additional states.

[Supreme Court fight jolts battle for the Senate]

Planned Parenthood has not released updated donation numbers since Ginsburg’s death but said it sees interest from new volunteers and a spike in response rates from phone banking. Volunteer sign-ups doubled in the past week.

Fundraising for the group’s Democratic allies skyrocketed after Ginsburg’s death, with ActBlue reporting over $200 million in small donations since then.

In Montana, Republican Sen. Steve Daines is in a close race for reelection against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Trump carried Montana by 20 points in 2016, while at the same time Bullock won the governorship by 4 points.

Conservative groups like SBA List are also looking to convince voters nationwide, including in the battlegrounds of Florida and North Carolina, to back Trump’s reelection.

This month, the president pledged a new set of goals to limit abortion if elected to a second term, and the Republican National Convention featured multiple speakers who doubled down on the issue as a priority. SBA List officials also said they plan to lobby to get an abortion question included in an upcoming presidential debate.

Since 2016, state legislatures have passed laws restricting abortion in places like Georgia, Alabama, Ohio and Missouri. But legal advocacy groups have challenged and blocked almost all of the recent restrictions. Trump has used executive action to limit federal family planning funding for Planned Parenthood and block funding for organizations abroad that support abortion rights. He also nominated a record number of judges who oppose abortion.

Abortion-rights advocates also have their sights set on races in Arizona and North Carolina where they hope to gain Democratic seats in the Senate, and in statehouses like Pennsylvania.

A Gallup Poll in July found that 24 percent of voters said a candidate must share their views on abortion. Abortion opponents are more likely to call the issue key to their votes, with 30 percent calling it a threshold issue, compared to 19 percent of abortion rights supporters.

Despite Ginsburg’s death and its impact on the court, some experts agree most voters would not be motivated by abortion policy alone.

“Overall, in most down-ticket races, it turns out that the number of single-issue voters that actually turn up at the polls on this issue is very small. And it tends not to vary very much,” said Ziad Munson, a Lehigh University associate professor of sociology and author of the book Abortion Politics.

Still, Munson argues the Supreme Court vacancy’s effect on politics “poses a much greater risk for Joe Biden than it does Donald Trump.”

“A Supreme Court nomination battle that focuses on abortion or any of the other standard culture war issues threatens to reframe the debate [as] one of traditional partisan differences,” he said. “Abortion is an issue that moves the discussion away from the pandemic and health care in a way that doesn’t benefit the Democrats.”

[Supreme Court’s legitimacy at stake in wake of Ginsburg’s death]

Abortion opponents’ goals

Nationally, SBA List has knocked on over 1.7 million voters’ doors this cycle across eight states, including Florida, Montana and North Carolina. The group says it contacts about 150,000 infrequent and persuadable voters per week. They expect that number to grow.

“I very often meet people who don’t think of the pro-life factor as the deciding factor in their vote, and when they realize what’s going on and what it is, it really does make a difference in who they vote for,” said Victoria Laney, a canvasser in Florida. “When I go to the door, it becomes a deciding factor.”

North Carolina, a presidential swing state, has a competitive Senate race between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, a former state senator.

The strategy in Florida, however, is entirely presidential. The Sunshine State holds 29 of 270 electoral college votes and may prove critical to winning the White House.

SBA List is spotlighting votes by California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, against two bills this term. One would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy in most cases, and supporters of another say it would enhance protections for an infant that survives an attempted abortion. Both have been unable to reach a needed 60-vote threshold.

Last month, Women Speak Out PAC launched a five-figure ad buy calling the Democratic candidates “the most extreme pro-abortion ticket in history.”

Abortion rights advocacy

While conservatives are mostly focused on federal elections, Planned Parenthood also is prioritizing races for state legislatures and governorships.

“States like Arizona, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have anti-abortion politicians holding a very small majority. We have a clear path to victory in flipping those chambers,” said Amanda Matos, director of constituency campaigns for Planned Parenthood Votes, the group’s super PAC.

PP Votes sees an opening similar to the one in 2018, when Virginia flipped control of its state legislature and Kentucky replaced a GOP governor with a Democrat who supports abortion rights. State officials have been increasingly active in protecting or, more often in recent years, restricting abortions within their areas.

PP Votes made its largest in-state investment in its history in North Carolina, and hopes to flip both state chambers in Pennsylvania.

Matos said the group’s goal is to reach 5 million to 7 million voters nationally this cycle.

This week will mark the release of the group’s national voter guide for federal and state candidates with information about their stances on reproductive health. The guide will be backed by a six-figure investment.

“We already knew that the stakes were high, and they just increased exponentially,” said Terrill.

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