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The Trailer: In three swing states, abortion bans could be on the midterm ballot

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In this edition: Why abortion bans will be on the ballot next year, a Republican dilemma in Massachusetts, and the Chinese phrase that's taken the right by storm.

Don't worry, there's nothing in here about a government shutdown. This is The Trailer.

Dana Nessel began preparing early for the end of legal abortion in Michigan. In 2017, before launching her campaign for attorney general, the Democrat studied the state's 1931 law that banned any form of abortion unless the life of a mother was in danger. For most of her life — Nessel is 52 — the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade superseded that law. But Donald Trump had just been elected president.

“He was going to have more openings on the court, even if I didn't know how many,” Nessel, who won the 2018 race and is seeking reelection, said in an interview. “It was clear to me, whoever was attorney general from 2019 to 2023, that Roe would fall.”

Wednesday's oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization backed up Nessel's thinking. The court's six conservatives sounded ready to uphold Mississippi's ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In the words of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), speaking for plenty of social conservatives, Roe and Casey v. Planned Parenthood were “very much in play.” 

In 21 states where abortion bans are on the books but Roe makes them unenforceable, a conservative victory in Dobbs could criminalize the practice immediately. Three of those states — Michigan, Arizona and Wisconsin — were decided by single digits in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. And each has elections for governor, attorney general and down-ballot offices next year, which could be fought over whether to change abortion bans passed before most voters were born.

“Just because there’s a trigger law doesn’t mean there won’t be a political skirmish,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List. “Trigger” laws are currently unenforceable abortion statutes that could be enforced immediately if Roe is overturned. “What lies ahead, in terms of legislation? To be honest, people don’t prepare until they absolutely have to.”

A decision in Dobbs isn't expected until June 2022, before primaries in all three of the swing states with pre-Roe abortion bans. But candidates in both parties expect a sweeping decision that throws abortion rights to states, and both parties have been preparing for years. 

In this year's races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia, and in the unsuccessful attempt to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), Democrats warned of a reckoning on abortion, with Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe both promising to enshrine Roe's protections if they won, warning that state laws since 1973 had been written when the Supreme Court considered most limits on abortion to be unconstitutional.

“If the foundation of that series of case laws is impacted, impaired, taken away, the entire reality in our state falls like a house of cards,” Murphy said in September, when a strict new restriction on abortion in Texas was left in place by the court's conservative majority. “We need to, as soon as possible, put this protection into statute.”

Murphy won a closer-than-expected victory, and McAuliffe lost, though both increased Democratic turnout over what it had been in 2017. “McAuliffe tried to make that an A-level issue, and he failed,” Dannenfelser said. And in Virginia, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin worked to downplay the abortion issue by saying he would not sign a law like the one in Texas, which allows citizens to sue abortion providers and collect $10,000 payments.

The Texas law didn't affect abortion rights in other states, but the Dobbs ruling could. Republicans hold majorities in the Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin state legislatures, and Democratic efforts to change old abortion statutes have gone nowhere. In Arizona, where a 1901 abortion ban has remained on the books, Republicans are already debating what to change and what to enforce when the ruling comes down.

“I will advocate with partners like Center for Arizona Policy who have a stalwart track record of crafting and passing legislation that protects the sanctity of life at all stages,” said Rodney Glassman, one of the Republicans running for Arizona attorney general in 2022. In an interview with Capitol Media Services, the center's president, Cathi Herrod, pointed out that any of the state's pre-Roe abortion laws could be enforced if the 1973 precedent fell. 

Some Democrats, acknowledging how the law could change, argued that putting them in office could be the only way to prevent a wave of abortion prosecutions.

“I will not prosecute any woman for having an abortion, even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe,” said Kris Mayes, a Democrat running for attorney general in Arizona. “I'd actively advocate for Arizona's legislature to repeal the outrageous laws on the books that outlaw abortion and I'd discourage county prosecutors from prosecuting abortion in our state.”

After decades of trying to craft abortion limitations that would survive the Supreme Court's scrutiny, some antiabortion activists saw no need to alter the trigger laws. Heather Weininger, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, said a more limited ruling next year could open the door to other priorities, like “pain capable” legislation that bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But a comprehensive victory would ban abortion immediately. After that, she said, the group might campaign to codify the abortion ban in the state constitution.

“We’ve had a law on the books since 1849,” Weininger said. “We just want that enforced.” 

Eric Toney, a Republican running for attorney general, said in an email that he was “proudly endorsed” by Wisconsin Right to Life, and would see how the court ruled on Dobbs.

“I will enforce and defend the law as passed by the legislature and signed into law,” Toney said. “I’ll support and help lead efforts to ensure Wisconsin’s abortion laws are followed, if the Supreme Court allows for enforcement.”

Democrats, facing a rocky midterm environment in every swing state, are already running against the old statutes. After the high court's decision to let the Texas law stand, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for the repeal of the “arcane law” from 1931, urging the Republican majority in Lansing to allow a vote on a bill to change it — which didn't happen. In other states, Democrats have said they would not prioritize abortion prosecutions if the old laws snapped back into effect. That would leave a choice with voters: Elect a Republican who'd enforce abortion bans, or a Democrat who'd resist them while working to repeal them.

“Abortion bans endanger women's health and safety,” Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said in a statement. “As long as I'm Attorney General, the Wisconsin Department of Justice will not investigate or prosecute anyone for violating an abortion ban that has, correctly, been understood to be unconstitutional for nearly half a century.”

Antiabortion activists are mobilizing, too, and Dannenfelser's group has already organized door-knocking campaigns in Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin to defeat Democrats and advocate for policies that could be legal next year, like a “pain capable” law.

In Michigan, Nessel compared a potential ruling for Mississippi in Dobbs to the situation she faced when she took office. Her Republican predecessor had left a number of marijuana cases unfinished; she took office after voters legalized marijuana, and didn't pursue the cases. Adultery was still illegal in Michigan when she became attorney general, she added, but prosecutors chose not to bring adultery cases.

“My views are not extremist,” Nessel said. “The vast majority of Michiganders agree with me on this. The vast majority of Michiganders are paying attention to other things right now, but they’ll evaluate it again if Roe is overturned.”

Reading list

“Potential collapse of Roe shakes up political landscape,” by Sean Sullivan and Seung Min Kim

Democrats and Republicans confront the inevitable.

“Inside Trump’s campaign to demonize two Georgia election workers,” by Jason Szep and Linda So

Death threats and unremitting hostility.

“If Biden’s political fortunes are tied to the pandemic, omicron could signal trouble,” by Tyler Pager and Annie Linskey

Plenty of possible responses, few political upsides.

“Longtime president of Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity is forced out,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker

An unexplained departure at a libertarian campaign powerhouse.

“A progressive civil war threatens the left’s power In Rhode Island,” by Daniel Marans

Inside the “co-op” strategy.

“‘The scientific community is almost monolithic against you’: When Dr. Oz went to the Senate,” by Ian Ward

Why being a senator would be more fun than giving Senate testimony.

Election wars

The Republican-led probe of Wisconsin's 2020 election grew more heated and personal Wednesday. Michael Gableman, the former state Supreme Court justice put in charge of the probe by the GOP-run legislature, told the Assembly's election committee that heavily Democratic cities he'd asked for information on their election conduct had blown him off, and he attacked the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for closely covering the attorneys he'd hired for the probe while not questioning whether decisions by local election officials had “rigged” the 2020 vote.

“The state’s largest and once respected but now rapidly failing newspaper has taken up the partisan cause of unlawful electioneering by shielding from accountability potential wrongdoing by government officials,” Gableman said. Later, he called out Patrick Marley, a reporter for the paper, by name. “He and other liberal activists will soon be investigating every aspect, every detail of my employees' lives, professional lives. He will be reporting, no doubt above the fold, everything about this.”

At issue: Gableman, who repeatedly rejected the suggestion that he was trying to “overturn” the 2020 election, had sought private interviews with city leaders in Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay, and they'd demanded more details and public meetings instead. “They have no intention of answering uncomfortable questions about how they ran their elections,” said Gableman, who did not cite any inaccuracies in the media's coverage.

The mayors, when they've responded, have described the probe as a waste of time, investigating conduct that was not illegal. “It’s been clear all along that this is not a serious investigation,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said after the hearing. “It’s basically a temper tantrum by people who are upset with some of the results of the November 2020 election.” 

Wednesday's hearing often turned into a shouting match between Gableman and Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D); both Spreitzer and the media, Gableman complained, were obsessed with who was on the probe team and how they were spending the six-figure fund appropriated by Republicans. The focus, said Gableman, should be on the money given to state and local election offices from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, $350 million of it from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. At the time, the donations — which went to whoever asked for them, in rural and urban counties — were mostly non-controversial. Since the election, Gableman and others argued that the money helped local election officials run de facto electioneering programs for Democrats.

“What do we mean by rigged?” Gableman asked. “What I mean is: Did government officials use corporate money, which was transformed into public money, in an effort to help one candidate to help get out the vote?”

As the hearing wrapped up, he asked for Spreitzer's remarks to be stricken from the record. The Democrat shot back on Twitter: “This unhinged display from Mike Gableman shows what I’ve said all along: he is unfit to run the Speaker’s sham investigation.”

Ad watch

Dr. Oz for Senate, “Dr. Oz for U.S. Senate. The most famous Senate candidate in America does not live in the state where he's running; Mehmet Oz has long lived in New Jersey, but he voted last year from an in-law's address near Philadelphia. While Oz says he's rented a place in Pennsylvania, the commonwealth isn't mentioned by name in his debut ad, which deploys chyrons and a new campaign logo almost identical to what viewers of his TV show are used to. The message is more universal: He's going to “tell it like it is” as a candidate, starting with how the government's responses to the pandemic cost “too many jobs” while “we lost too many lives.”

Gibbons for Ohio, “Safer and Stronger.” The Club for Growth has already spent millions of dollars attacking Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance over his 2016 criticism of Donald Trump, which Vance has recanted. At a forum Monday, Vance hit back at the Club for spending even more money attacking Trump that year than it's spent attacking his own candidacy in 2021. Mike Gibbons, who co-chaired Trump's 2016 fundraising operation in Ohio, makes the same attacks here, with some of the same clips of Vance's 2016 interviews, telling Republican voters that they can't trust the “Hillbilly Elegy” author. “President Trump fought for you,” Gibbons says. “I'll do the same.”

Bernie for Ohio, “Gas.” Another Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, Bernie Moreno, has launched a $4 million ad buy to reintroduce himself — a luxury car dealer with an American story and a bone to pick with liberals. “My parents came here for the American Dream, a dream briefly crushed by Jimmy Carter,” Moreno says over images of gas lines. “Failed policies causing massive inflation. Now Joe Biden and the socialists are rerunning the same playbook.” Most people who voted in Carter's last election, 41 years ago, are no longer alive, but the idea of the late 1970s being repeated in real time is powerful for many conservatives.

Breakthrough Energy, “Better and Cleaner.” It's always time for “thank you” ads from interest groups that want members to be reelected for supporting their agenda. The Bill Gates-founded Breakthrough Energy backs the climate portions of the Build Back Better legislation in Congress, and Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) represents a district that Republicans gerrymandered to make it harder for him to win next year. Help arrives from a boosterish narrator: “Your support of the bipartisan infrastructure legislation and the Build Back Better Act has ignited the clean industrial revolution, from steel to cement to jet fuel.”

Retirement watch

And then there were nineteen. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), who's represented a version of the 4th Congressional District since 1987, announced his retirement Wednesday, becoming the latest Democrat (and third committee chair) to hang it up for the 2022 election. 

“It's time for me to pass the baton to the next generation so I can focus on my health and well-being,” DeFazio, who turned 74 this year, said in a statement. At a news conference, he explained that he'd had back surgery this year, and “disturbing” health issues, and was “going out on top” as the House Transportation Committee chairman who presided over the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

DeFazio's the eighth Democrat to retire in a district that President Biden carried by less than 10 points, and Republicans already were targeting the seat again this year, after Republican Alek Skarlatos outraised DeFazio and held him to just 52 percent of the vote in 2020. (A candidate backed by a Green Party affiliate grabbed 2 percent.) The district, where the college towns of Eugene and Corvallis provide big margins for Democrats, had shifted slightly to the right since it was drawn; Democrats in Salem undid some of that in their new map, pulling deep-red Josephine County out of the district and adding reliably blue Lincoln County, creating a seat that went for Biden by 13 points.

Skarlatos is best known as one of the Americans who stopped a 2015 terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train; he raised $5.5 million for his 2020 race, and had raised a bit less than $700,000 for this one as of the third fundraising quarter. Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, a former Democratic leader in the state House, announced her own bid a few hours after DeFazio's exit. Hoyle won her job in 2018 running slightly behind DeFazio, who was in a fifth race against perennial GOP candidate Art Robinson, in the 4th District.

In the states

Massachusetts. In a joint announcement Wednesday morning, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said he wouldn't seek a third term, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said she wouldn't run to replace him.

“We believe the pandemic means we really ought to just focus on the work and get it done,” Baker told reporters on Beacon Hill. “There should be an urgency associated with what needs to happen here in Massachusetts, on the ‘do’ side.”

Baker's decision instantly improved Democrats' chances of winning back the governor's office; national Republicans had hoped for Baker to run again. (Strategists at the Republican Governors Association saw the race as a likely hold with him on the ticket.) Elected narrowly in 2014, Baker became one of the most popular governors in the country — an antiabortion moderate who rejected tax increases and criticized Donald Trump. During the height of the pandemic, and when the state achieved one of the fastest and broadest vaccination rates, polling found Baker's job approval rating soaring above 75 percent.

That changed over the course of the year, and Baker was heading into 2022 in a weakened position. Geoff Diehl, a former state representative who ran against and lost to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) in 2018, launched a campaign for governor in June and was organizing delegates to beat Baker at the Republican convention. Baker looked beatable; he'd supporting impeaching Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection, which prompted some calls for his censure, and he'd allowed local vaccine requirements to go into effect while exploring a voluntary state vaccine passport.

“Are you guys against vaccine passports?” Diehl asked the crowd at a Boston rally in September. “Then you know what you've got to do. You've got to vote out the governor, you've got to vote out the lieutenant governor, and you've got to make sure you take this into your own hands.” Two weeks later, Trump endorsed Diehl, saying Baker had “totally abandoned the principles of the Republican Party.”

The Democratic Governors Association began playing with Baker after that, commissioning a poll that found Diehl running 32 points ahead of him, which fed coverage of the conservative's campaign. According to a UMass Amherst poll taken and released last month, just 41 percent of Republican voters approved of Baker's performance, and other polling tested whether he could win a three-way race, abandoning the GOP to Diehl and running as an independent. When Baker opted out completely, state GOP Chairman Jim Lyons celebrated.

“Our party remains committed to the America-First agenda advocated by President Donald J. Trump,” Lyons said in a Wednesday statement. “It’s clear to me that Charlie Baker was shaken by President Trump’s endorsement of another Republican candidate in Geoff Diehl.” 

While Republicans fought among themselves, the party lost ground. Democrat Jamie Belsito flipped a Republican-held state House district Tuesday, one that her party hadn't held since before the Civil War. And at 5 p.m. Wednesday, the party failed to qualify a voter ID measure for the 2022 ballot.

A few Democrats had launched campaigns before Baker's decision, including state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, former state senator Ben Downing and Harvard professor Danielle Allen. But Attorney General Maura Healey (D), the first openly gay woman to hold that office in any state, has considered a run for years, and she has $3.3 million that could be moved into a campaign for governor. Labor Secretary and former Boston mayor Marty Walsh has not ruled out quitting the Cabinet to run; he left city hall with more than $5 million raised for another mayoral bid. 

“Parents want to be able to look at their kids and know that they're going to inherit a planet that will sustain them, and a public safety system that is not riddled with racial injustice, and an economic system that does not treat wealth divides as the norm,” Chang-Díaz said in an interview. “These are the things that we have let go untended for way too long.”

Georgia. Democrat Stacey Abrams announced a second bid for governor, three years after a narrow loss to Gov. Brian Kemp (R) that she acknowledged but did not concede.

“Opportunity in our state shouldn't be determined by Zip code, background or access to power,” Abrams said in a campaign launch video, which didn't mention Kemp by name. Democrat-turned-Republican Vernon Jones is already challenging Kemp in the 2022 primary, and Donald Trump has urged former senator David Perdue to run, even telling one interviewer that Abrams would be a better governor than a Republican he remains furious at for his refusal to overturn the 2020 election results in the state.

One day earlier, Atlanta voters elected City Councilman Andre Dickens as their next mayor in a nearly 2-1 landslide over City Council President Felicia Moore. Both candidates are Black Democrats; Dickens was endorsed by outgoing Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. And across Georgia, Democrats made dozens of gains in municipal races, including four mayoral offices in the greater Atlanta area. In the city of South Fulton, City Councilman Khalid Kamau unseated a fellow Democrat in the mayor's office, running well to his left. Kamau, a democratic socialist who also calls himself a “critical race theorist,” ran against the city's new red light cameras and talked about making it a “laboratory for the most effective policies to remove the systemic barrier” of racism.

“I’ve always understood African culture to be inherently socialist,” Kamau said in an interview. “All the things trendy to leftists today, like collaboration, like passing a talking stick – these are things that Indigenous cultures have been doing for centuries.”

Lexicon

The rise of Donald Trump was thrilling to millions people who will never get a chance to vote for him. The nationalist right in Europe saw vindication and momentum from his 2016 victory. Brazil's right-wing president didn't acknowledge Trump's 2020 defeat until the electoral college vote was over. And in China, social conservatives celebrated Trump for the defeats he'd dealt to the baizuo, a word that roughly translates to “White left.”

Journalists covering China noticed the surprising fandom, and the use of “baizuo,” more than four years ago. In a 2017 essay, the scholar Chenchen Zhang summed up the term with descriptions pulled from a Chinese message board: The White left was “obsessed with political correctness,” and hypocritically focused on “topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment.” If America and the West were growing weaker, as very few people in these discussions disputed, the baizuo were accelerating that process.

The term caught on with America's nationalist conservatives, and it's appeared more frequently this year, as a way to criticize the cultural left not just as a domestic problem but as a threat to American power. Plenty of derisive terms for the new left were already in circulation, and the most popular – “woke” – repurposed a term that originated with Black Americans, later to be adopted by the left. 

“Baizuo” was more descriptive, and coined by people who stood to benefit if the United States lost its superpower status. What did the Chinese public think of drag queen story hours, critical race theory or sustainable insect-based meals? In their own words, some of them thought it was pathetic. In March, Fox News host Tucker Carlson walked his audience through the term, citing the same sorts of Chinese message board discussions that Zhang had, attributing the definition to “Chinese state media,” which suggested that it reflected how the Chinese Communist Party might think.

“Standardized tests are disappearing, thanks to lobbying by baizuo – from woke Democrats,” Carlson said. “You know who else notices it? The Chinese. Why wouldn’t they? On one hand, they’re offended, because the baizuo’s so-called ‘equity programs’ always wind up hurting people who look like them. On the other hand, the Chinese government is pleased as they watch this.” More recently, in a blog post about sex toys and contraceptives he asserted were offered to Princeton students, the American Conservative's Rod Dreher urged readers to “think about what a gift to the Chinese and the Russians something like this is.” 

“Baizuo” hasn't been adopted by many candidates yet, but it captures two themes running through Republican politics. One is that liberalism is making Americans weaker, less healthy and less competitive; the other is that China is on the move, ready to take advantage of American weakness.

Countdown

… nine days until municipal runoff elections in Louisiana 
… 13 days until the 2022 candidate filing deadline in Texas 
… 40 days until the election in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 89 days until the first 2022 primaries
… 341 days until the midterm elections

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