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Memo: State legislative elections will determine abortion policy

A new memo from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee emphasizes state legislatures as the cornerstone of the fight over abortion policy.

Abortion protesters faced off outside the Minnesota Legislature's House Chamber in the State Capitol building, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, in St. Paul, Minn., during the first day an abortion bill was being heard in the House. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on electing Democratic majorities to state legislatures, has identified abortion as a key electoral issue going into the 2024 election cycle.
Abortion protesters faced off outside the Minnesota Legislature's House Chamber in the State Capitol building, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, in St. Paul, Minn., during the first day an abortion bill was being heard in the House. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on electing Democratic majorities to state legislatures, has identified abortion as a key electoral issue going into the 2024 election cycle. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Democratic down-ballot campaigns will make state reproductive health issues their cornerstone issue during this election cycle, according to a memo shared first with CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. 

The decision comes after national attention to state and local races highlighting abortion has skyrocketed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Groups poured a record $51 million into a 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court race and $57 million into Michigan’s 2022 ballot initiative that established a right to reproductive freedom, including abortion.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on electing Democratic majorities to state legislatures, already committed $60 million to the 2024 cycle. But in a memo released Wednesday, the group emphasized that congressional gridlock and new circumstances materializing post-Dobbs have made the states critical to changing existing reproductive policies.

“This is the most important level of the ballot that is shaping the future of abortion access across the country,” said DLCC President Heather Williams.

She said the DLCC is “trying to make the argument to donors that the stakes are incredibly high and this is a really strategic ballot level and that your resources go really far here.”

In its memo, the DLCC said the group will use campaign messaging, ads, mailers and direct contact to highlight the issue.

“State legislatures are now the arbiters of reproductive freedom, shaping the reality facing women and their access to care,” the DLCC memo reads, adding “states have never been more important to shaping policy or our future.”
 
Beyond abortion itself, state policy changes like an Alabama Supreme Court ruling last month that determined that frozen embryos should be considered unborn children under state personhood protections have spurred confusion and outrage nationally from proponents of in vitro fertilization, or IVF.

In the aftermath of that decision, Congress saw renewed interest in existing bills and new resolutions that capitalized on how to protect access to IVF. The Senate blocked fast-track consideration of two IVF access bills, and the House has not taken up any of its recently introduced non-binding resolutions.

“When Congress scrambled but failed to protect IVF access nationwide because of Republican obstruction, it became clear that once again, action on this issue would be left to the states,” the DLCC memo states. 

Alabama state lawmakers on March 6 passed a bipartisan, temporary fix that would provide civil and criminal immunity to IVF providers, but the memo notes that 14 states have introduced personhood bills this year.

Williams said the broader issue has remained “as people’s understanding of the potential impact of the Dobbs decision and states having control over the decision-making power of women and and their choices around health care” has grown.

But while the group plans on making abortion rights its key issue, it does not employ a litmus test for Democratic candidates, she said. 

The DLCC hopes to capitalize on success in Virginia in 2023 and majorities in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota flipped during the 2022 midterms.

Last November, Democrats flipped control of the Virginia General Assembly and kept control of the state Senate in the midst of a campaign from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to gain a legislative majority to support his 15-week abortion ban proposal.

Twenty-three states currently have Republican trifectas, with a GOP House, Senate and governorship, compared to 17 trifectas held by Democrats.

“Since the fall of Roe, every Republican trifecta has pushed to enact an abortion ban, while every state with a Democratic legislative majority has taken action to protect or expand abortion,” the memo states.

For 2024, DLCC highlighted Minnesota, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Arizona as its targets to maintain or shift narrow control, while hoping to chip at the majorities in North Carolina, Georgia, Kansas and Wisconsin as part of more long-term strategies.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the DLCC’s counterpart, has announced a similar target list but did not respond to a request for comment on any campaign pushes related to abortion for 2024.

Michigan first will hold two special elections for seats in the 13th and 25th districts in its House of Representatives on April 16. The chamber is currently split 54-54 following the resignation of two Democrats who won mayoral races.

The results will determine if Democrats could maintain their current trifecta, at least until the end of the year. The special election candidates would only serve until Jan. 1, 2025.

In Arizona, which has a Democratic governor but where Republicans control both chambers, the DLCC is looking to flip a few seats as the state is also poised to vote on an abortion rights ballot measure this year.

Eva Burch, an Arizona state senator for its 9th district, announced during floor remarks Monday that she intended to seek an abortion.

Burch described how she had to have an abortion because of complications with a nonviable pregnancy in 2022 during her campaign for state Senate. Now, she said, she will again need to seek an abortion. 

“I’m choosing abortion because I’m pregnant, and for reasons that I should not have to explain to you or to the church or to the state of Arizona, I need to not be pregnant anymore,” said Burch. “I truly hope that Arizona has the opportunity to weigh in on abortion on the ballot in November.”

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