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Democrats aim to keep spotlight on abortion, as they face midterm head winds

Their efforts have collided with ramped-up Republican attempts to center the elections on crime and the economy

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) in Milwaukee on Sept. 24. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

From Nevada to New Hampshire, Democrats have run full-page newspaper ads on abortion as well as a flurry of television commercials focused on the issue in key Senate and House battlegrounds. In one such race in Virginia, a Democrat is running an ad this week featuring a woman who tells viewers she was raped at 17 and is disgusted by the Republican candidate’s comments on abortion.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who is fighting for his political survival this fall, called his state’s legislature into a brief special session that was quickly ended by Republicans, saying he wanted to open a path to enable voters to do away with a recently activated abortion ban from the 19th century.

And in Michigan, Democrats are strategizing around a ballot measure aimed at enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution, looking to capitalize on the referendum to drive voters they need to win key races to the polls in November.

With five weeks left until the midterms, Democrats are seeking to use every tool at their disposal to keep the focus on abortion, an issue they see as a powerful motivator and closing message. Their efforts have collided with ramped-up Republican attempts to center the elections on crime and the economy, posing a growing challenge in the final stretch.

“It does counteract a deck that is stacked against us in many ways,” said Christina Reynolds, a vice president at Emily’s List, a group focused on electing women who support abortion rights. “There is a reason you’re seeing it on the air in so many places.”

A stretch of strong summer special-election performances emboldened Democrats’ hopes of defying predictions of a GOP wave. As time has passed since the Supreme Court decision in June that polls show was unpopular with most Americans, Republicans said they have sensed a stronger opportunity to make inroads with late-deciding voters. Recent polls show GOP candidates making headway in some key contests.

Voters “are beginning to harden their opinions in the final weeks of the election cycle as Republicans demonstrate they are best equipped to solve problems related to inflation and rising violent crime,” said Republican Governors Association spokesman Jesse Hunt. “Democrats engaged their base voters by spending a tremendous amount of money on a single issue while failing to adequately address why voters believe they are worse off under Joe Biden,” he said, referring to abortion.

Nationally, recent Google News searches for inflation have run about even with inquiries on abortion. And in Senate battleground states such as Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia, that has also been the case.

Polls show a mixed picture of how much the country has focused on abortion as the campaigns head into the final weeks. A Gallup poll in September found 6 percent of Americans saying abortion or the judicial system is the most important problem in the country, down from 10 percent in August and 14 percent in July. On abortion specifically, 4 percent said it’s the country’s top problem, similar to 5 percent in August but down from a peak of 8 percent in July. At the same time, weekly Economist-YouGov polls that ask how important abortion is to people along with other issues show little change since early August.

Democrats see an advantage on the abortion issue. Fifty-one percent of registered voters said they trust Democrats to do a better job with abortion while 32 percent prefer Republicans, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. And 62 percent of voters named abortion as among their leading issues when they cast ballots in November. The same poll found 64 percent of voters disapproving of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade, with 54 percent disapproving “strongly.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and activists explain Proposal 3, a midterm ballot measure which would enshrine abortion rights in the state's constitution. (Video: Hannah Jewell, Lindsey Sitz, Ross Godwin/The Washington Post, Photo: Emily Elconin/The Washington Post)

Biden this week sought to encourage renewed attention to abortion laws. “Congress should codify the protections of Roe and do it once and for all,” he said Tuesday. “But right now, we have — we’re short a handful of votes. So the only way it’s going to happen is if the American people make it happen.”

Republican defensiveness on abortion as evidence has encouraged Democrats to keep bringing it up. On Tuesday night during a gubernatorial debate in Maine, Republican Paul LePage said he would not sign a bill adding restrictions to the state’s abortion law.

“Would you let it go into law without your signature?” Democratic Gov. Janet Mills asked. LePage, who served as the state’s governor from 2011 to 2019, replied, “I don’t know,” calling it a “hypothetical.” An extended back-and-forth ensued, in which LePage was in a defensive posture and ultimately said he would veto a measure that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In the closely watched U.S. Senate race in Georgia, abortion moved from a policy debate to a personal one for one of the candidates. There, Republican nominee Herschel Walker, who has run as a hard-line opponent of abortion rights, has faced questions about the procedure this week. The mother of one of Walker’s children has said that he ended a relationship with her in 2011 after she refused to have a second abortion as she had done two years earlier, according to a report in the New York Times.

The Washington Post has not independently confirmed the account, which builds on a story published earlier this week by the Daily Beast reporting that Walker paid for the woman to have an abortion. Walker has denied paying for an abortion and said he did not know what woman was making the allegation

To highlight the issue, Democrats have also boosted paid political advertisements on abortion, airing more than 132,000 ads on the topic in September, up from 33,000 abortion-related ads in August, according to AdImpact, which tracks commercials.

These include advertisements Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) released this week featuring a woman who says, “At the age of 17, I was raped. It was devastating.” She pointed to prior comments from Republican challenger Yesli Vega that appeared to cast doubt on whether women can get pregnant after being raped. “That made me sick,” the woman says in the ad.

Vega later attempted to clarify her comments, saying, “those were not the comments I ever stated.” She had previously replied to a person telling her that she heard it was harder for a woman to get pregnant if she’d been raped by saying, “I haven’t seen any studies. But if I’m processing what you’re saying, it wouldn’t surprise me, because it’s not something happening organically. Right? You’re forcing it.”

In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) recently launched an ad in which she said she would “fight for a woman’s right to make our own health-care decisions,” while Republican opponent “Adam Laxalt won’t.”

Laxalt and his allies have attempted to rebut her charge. A recent advertisement funded by the National Republican Senatorial Committee accused Democrats of using scare tactics in a state that has abortion protections in place.

“Over the last two years, Democrat politicians have done incredible damage to America,” a female narrator says in the advertisement, listing increases in crime, issues at the U.S.-Mexico border and a spike in prices. “They changed our lives. But one thing hasn’t changed: Abortion in Nevada,” the narrator says. “Why do Democrats like Catherine Cortez Masto only talk about something that hasn’t changed? Because they can’t defend everything that has.”

In Wisconsin, Evers, who is in a competitive race against Republican challenger Tim Michels, called a special legislative session to start a lengthy process to allow voters to put laws, including abortion rights, on the ballot before voters.

It lasted just seconds before Republicans shut it down. “To think that politicians that are running women’s lives and others’ lives wouldn’t take a minute to discuss this issue is an embarrassment to the state of Wisconsin,” Evers told reporters after a rally for abortion rights at the state Capitol.

The governor said he called the session in response to comments by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who recently suggested that his state should hold a referendum on adding exceptions for rape and incest to the state’s 1849 law banning the procedure in most instances. The law went into effect after the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion rights and Evers has said it should be repealed.

But Wisconsin doesn’t have a mechanism for a statewide ballot measure. “It dawned on me that it might be a good idea to allow that to happen,” Evers said in an interview with The Washington Post. He added that Johnson “set the stage” for the session.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson said he thinks the 19th-century abortion ban should be updated to include exceptions for rape and incest. “I would at minimum want it updated for that,” Johnson told the paper. Johnson’s Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, is engaged in a statewide campaign swing he has dubbed “Ron Against Roe.”

Republican leaders in the state called the Evers maneuver a “desperate political stunt” and signaled in advance that they would shut down the session swiftly, as they have in the past. “Gov. Evers would rather push his agenda,” said state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, both Republicans, in a joint statement ahead of the session, “than talk about his failure to address rising crime and runaway inflation caused by his liberal DC allies.”

Michels has signaled a shift on abortion, recently telling a Wisconsin radio host that he would sign legislation allowing abortions in the state in the case of rape or incest. State law already permits the procedure if the woman’s life is in danger.

Michels had insisted previously that he would not change his views on abortion, though he acknowledged that he faced pressure to do so. A spokesman for Michels did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In Michigan, Democrats successfully added a ballot measure that, if passed, will add the right to an abortion to the state’s constitution. Democrats hope it will drive supportive voters to the polls in November, to keep Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in power and pick up state legislative seats. Michigan is also home to three of the most competitive House districts in the country, including two seats that Democrats must defend and another the party hopes to flip.

“Our job as Democrats and as candidates is making sure that we are connecting ourselves and our candidates to voters on the issue,” said Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D), who drew national attention after a floor speech defending LGBTQ youths went viral. She said that Democrats in the state should tie themselves to the ballot measure with a message to voters that they will protect the outcome and won’t “gut” it as some Republicans have threatened.

Sixty-two percent of likely Michigan voters said they support the ballot initiative, according to a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll. Twenty-four percent said they were opposed, while 14 percent said they were undecided on it.

Prominent Democrats not on the ballot this year are also trying to help draw voters’ attention to abortion. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who won reelection in 2020, recently appeared at a news conference with Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler to pitch voters on backing more candidates supporting abortion rights — part of a national series of events.

“It’s going to be hard to remove this issue of women’s reproductive freedom from the conversation,” Cooper said. “You are seeing Republican candidates who have had extreme positions trying to scrub their websites and trying to move a little bit more toward what they call a common-sense position, but don’t believe them.”

Some Democrats have pointed to recent developments that have kept abortion in the news, arguing that the issue will continue to command attention.

In Arizona last month, a judge revived an 1864 law banning most abortions, although an appellate court acted late Friday to halt its enforcement. The judge’s ruling drew a response from Democrats in Arizona’s key races. Sen. Mark Kelly (D) ran an advertisement highlighting comments opposing abortions made by GOP Senate nominee Blake Masters. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs said she was “mourning” the decision.

Patrick Marley and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.