Midterm state races see increased emphasis on abortion post-Roe
Democrats see governor, AG races as a chance to block abortion restrictions
Democratic candidates are ramping up messaging on reproductive health in races for governor and attorney general as they capitalize on renewed interest in protecting access to abortion and contraception ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
That the issue is affecting state races makes sense: Most abortion policy changes occur on the state level, with changes to federal abortion law more rare. Democrats see defending or flipping a governor or attorney general seat as a way to block the enactment or implementation of abortion restrictions and, in some cases, a step towards more progressive reproductive policies.
While Democrats have highlighted their opponents' stances on abortion, Republicans have largely shied away from emphasizing reproductive health care policy changes since the primaries, focusing instead on inflation or immigration.
In all, voters will decide on 30 attorney general races and 36 gubernatorial races in November.
“My hope is that if voters send a clear message at the polls that they support candidates who are pro-choice who are going to protect access to safe and legal abortion — that that will lead to momentum in favor of the codification of Roe at the federal level,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, who is seeking reelection.
The Democratic Attorneys General Association has committed to spending a record $25 million to $30 million nationwide this year supporting incumbents and battleground candidates who focus on abortion and has required candidates to commit to protecting abortion access in order to receive financial support since 2019.
Both the Democratic Attorneys General Association and Democratic Governors Association are hoping their efforts help them maintain control of seats in Wisconsin and Michigan and flip states like Arizona, where both parties are divided on the recent implementation of an abortion ban from 1901. The Arizona governor and attorney general positions are open seats this year, with both positions previously held by Republicans.
“The (Republican Governors Association) is ground zero for Republicans’ extreme plan to rip away a woman’s right to choose, and they are counting on Republican governors to carry out their plan to ban abortion,” a narrator states in a Democratic Governors Association ad released last week targeting candidates in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.
But Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, emphasized that moderate and independent voters are more worried about the economy, crime and education.
“Democrats continuing to direct the conversation to their own extremist position of on-demand abortions up until birth may excite their base, but it only further reinforces to the voters they need to actually win that Democrats don't care about their greatest concerns or have plans to address them,” Rodriguez said.
Gubernatorial races have also been a hotbed for political advocacy groups.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America made a plea on Sept. 24 for donations over comments made by Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, related to the six-week ban.
“We cannot let Planned Parenthood and their pro-abortion political puppets like Stacey Abrams get away with running disinformation all the way up through Election Day,” the group said.
Jenny Lawson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, said governors will be a backstop for states with divided governments.
“Governors and attorneys general play a critical role in fighting back against abortion bans and protecting reproductive freedom — the results of these races could literally determine the level of access of abortion for millions of people,” she said.
For states with competitive races for attorney general, the election may mean the difference between implementing or blocking a state abortion ban or larger legal strategy.
In Michigan and Wisconsin, Democratic incumbents hope to keep their seats and prevent older abortion bans from being implemented.
Wisconsin’s Kaul has campaigned on his efforts to block implementation of an 1849 state law that prohibits any abortion except to save the life of the mother. His office’s challenge to the law is still ongoing.
He has also called on the state Legislature to repeal the ban and has committed not to use Wisconsin Department of Justice resources to investigate or prosecute violations of the ban.
“This is a clear difference in our race between my Republican opponent and me," Kaul said. "He's said that he would withdraw from our lawsuit on day one in office and … would enforce the ban as attorney general, which means putting people behind bars for abortions."
Republican candidate Eric Toney, in a tweet praising the backing of the SBA Pro-Life America Candidate Fund on Sept. 30, criticized Kaul for not implementing the law.
“I am proudly pro-life and I will enforce and defend the rule of law — not just when I agree — unlike Josh Kaul who picks and chooses when to defend the rule of law,” said Toney.
In Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, has also campaigned on her opposition to a pre-Roe law.
In August, she released an ad differentiating herself from her GOP opponent, Matt DePerno, who supports implementing the state’s 1931 abortion ban. Nessel also campaigned on Sept. 29 for an upcoming Michigan ballot measure that would codify state abortion rights protections.
But the biggest campaign splashes related to reproductive health are from Democrats looking to flip seats.
In Arizona, which has had a Republican attorney general since 2011, Democrat Kris Mayes has emphasized reproductive health as a top issue in her race against Abraham Hamadeh. An Arizona judge on Sept. 29 reimplemented an 1864 law banning almost all abortions.
Mayes touts a 12-point plan to protect abortion rights. On Sept. 29, she released an ad attacking her opponent’s support of a newly implemented law.
“A lot of folks here are in a state of disbelief that we are now subject to this cruel law that predates women even being able to vote in Arizona and predates our constitution,” Mayes said. “The first thing that I will do when I'm elected is I'm going to reverse the position of the state of Arizona in this case.”
Mayes said the law makes in vitro fertilization, which she used to have a baby, illegal because of the 1864 law's broad language.
While Hamadeh was enthusiastic in his support for a ban earlier in the campaign, he's been more restrained in his messaging on the issue since the June 24 Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Democrats see gubernatorial races as a way to campaign on state-codified abortion protections, past or possible future executive orders related to reproductive health, and as a wedge to limit the effects of a state abortion ban.
Christina Amestoy, the Democratic Governors Association's senior campaign communications advisor, said while reproductive rights have always been part of their campaigns, it's become a bigger issue on TV than in previous years.
“Every race is talking about this, and it just comes down to the varying degrees of how it's playing,” Amestoy said.
Incumbent governors in Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan are states with divided governments where Democrats are defending their seats and campaigning on this issue.
Tudor Dixon, the Republican running in Michigan, called Gov. Gretchen Whitmer “too extreme on this issue.”
“Let’s be clear, this is only an issue in the governor's race because Gretchen has spent over $20 million on dishonest and misleading attack ads trying to scare women and make it one. She's campaigning on abortion in a cynical and dishonest attempt to hide from her own failed record on education, jobs, crime, and the high price of gas and groceries,” she said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
Candidates have also amped up reproductive health messaging in tight races for open seats in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Arizona Democrat Katie Hobbs said, if elected, she plans to call a special legislative session on her first day to repeal the state’s abortion bans, and if that is unsuccessful she would work with advocates to advance a ballot measure that repeals and replaces the bans. Her campaign said it raised more than $1.2 million in the week after the implementation of the Arizona law.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, is running for governor. He has vowed to veto any bills that limit women's reproductive rights and on Sept. 27 lambasted Republican nominee Doug Mastriano over recently resurfaced comments from 2019 in which Mastriano suggested women seeking abortions should face murder charges.
Mastriano has kept a lower profile, but said in late September he was encouraged by the turnout at the Pennsylvania March for Life. “You know, the media tells us that that decision by the Supreme Court in June put the momentum on the other side. I didn't see that. I don't see it,” said Mastriano. “It's motivated our base actually."