The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After decades defending abortion rights, Patty Murray readies for offense

First elected during the “Year of the Woman" in 1992, the Democratic senator worries women are losing rights instead of gaining them

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) poses for a portrait on Capitol Hill on May 11 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
12 min

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Murray had never faced another woman in a general election. In fact, she defeated former GOP Rep. Linda Smith in 1998.

Moments before the Senate took a doomed vote on abortion rights Wednesday, it fell to Sen. Patty Murray — the highest-ranking Democratic woman and the party’s preeminent leader on health care — to sound a rallying cry against those seeking to reverse Roe v. Wade.

“To everyone who is scared, everyone who is furious, know this: They have some big roadblocks in their way — me, Senate Democrats, House Democrats, and millions of patients across this country who are going to stand up and speak out,” she said.

The speech sparked applause from spectators inside the chamber, who included dozens of House Democratic women who had marched across the Capitol to protest Roe’s potential end at the hands of a conservative Supreme Court — a possibility that was rendered stark this month by the leak of a draft opinion summarily overturning the constitutional right to abortion.

It was an unusually high-profile moment for Murray, 71, but far from an unfamiliar one.

For well over a decade, the no-nonsense Washington lawmaker has been the single most effective Democratic combatant against Republican attempts to restrict abortion and otherwise roll back reproductive health-care rights on Capitol Hill. It’s a battle she has sought out since she was left aghast by the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, during which he was accused of workplace sexual harassment that he denied. Murray was elected the next year in the “Year of the Woman” — which brought the total number of female senators from two to six.

There are now 24 women in the Senate, and especially among the 16 Democrats, Murray has long since emerged as a leader, mentor and outspoken voice on women’s rights. And in the wake of the Supreme Court leak, she has been front-and-center for Democrats, flanking Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in front of cameras while, behind the scenes, helming a crash effort to formulate a strategic response to the coming final Supreme Court decision.

“She doesn’t believe in leaving half our population behind on any issue,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said of Murray. “She reminds us over and over that we are not going back, ever.”

A 49-year crusade: Inside the movement to overturn Roe v. Wade

Yet, in an wide-ranging interview conducted in the wake of Wednesday’s failed vote, Murray acknowledged not only that the fight she has led during her 30 years in office is getting tougher but expressed fear and frustration that she might end her political career with women enjoying fewer rights than when she began it. She also expressed confidence that it is a “galvanizing moment” that will ultimately prompt a national furor capable of preserving those rights

“The vast majority of women have no idea what it really means, and part of … what we have to now do is to help lift up those voices so people understand the impacts of this,” she said. “You mean, really? I won’t be able to make a decision about my own life? … I don’t think it will take very long.”

Not only have Murray and fellow Democratic women had to contend with a long GOP-led campaign to attack abortion rights, they are now also confronting a wave of anger inside their own party, wondering how Republicans have found themselves on the cusp of winning a stunning victory against abortion that is sharply at odds with national sentiment.

“Where’s the Democratic Party?” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) asked a day after the leaked opinion was published. “Why aren’t we standing up more firmly, more resolutely? Why aren’t we calling this out? This is a concerted, coordinated effort. And, yes, they’re winning.”

Said Murray in response, “I am right here working and yelling. Where are you?”

Much of that work, however, has taken place out of plain sight on Capitol Hill, in conference rooms and committee suites where the final details of must-pass legislation is hammered out. Murray, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as well as the Appropriations subcommittee on health, is the lawmaker who is routinely tasked with negotiating the final deal — and the final deal, she vividly describes, almost always involves abortion or women’s rights.

Some of the episodes get public attention — such as in 2011, when President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) were preparing to cut a budget deal with congressional Republicans that would snatch federal funding away from Planned Parenthood. Murray was called to Reid’s office late at night during a rainstorm to bless the deal.

“I look around, and I’m the only woman in the room and he says: ‘We have one last decision to make, and we just wanted to make sure you were okay with it,’ ” she recalled. “I said, no way in hell.” Murray rallied Democratic women against the move and, ultimately, the deal was cut with the Planned Parenthood funding intact, though Obama agreed instead to a provision banning local taxpayer funding for abortions in D.C.

What gets no attention at all, Murray says, are routine GOP attempts to insert abortion-related matters in even modest bills moving across the Senate floor. When lawmakers sought to reauthorize and expand a bill on global human rights sanctions earlier this year, for instance, Republicans sought to explicitly ban sanctions against foreign leaders who hold antiabortion views. The GOP request, and Murray’s firm objection, ultimately led the sanctions bill to be narrowed.

A Postal Service overhaul bill that had passed the House overwhelmingly in February languished in the Senate for weeks before passing. Part of the holdup, Murray said, was that Republicans sought to add an amendment restricting the ability to send abortion pills by mail, reversing a December FDA decision. Murray held her ground and the provision was dropped.

“I can list a hundred bills where it comes down to the last minute, and I’m saying no, you’re not going to take away a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “People around the country don’t know that. I live it.”

Murray acknowledges an asymmetry in how abortion rights supporters, who are now almost exclusively Democrats, and abortion rights opponents, almost exclusively Republicans, approach the issue. “It is a singular focus” for the GOP, she said. “There’s no opportunity they don’t take advantage of to try and promote their agenda.”

“We don’t think that way … We just think Roe v. Wade is the law of the land,” she added. “We haven’t gone to our side and said: You need to see what is happening here.”

Republicans, on cusp of abortion win, seek to change the subject

Now Murray is contemplating how she and other Democrats need to move from defense to offense — and move their fight out of the backrooms of Capitol Hill onto the campaign trail and into the homes of American women. She has been tasked by Schumer with leading a small group of Democratic women in formulating ways to quickly raise the salience of abortion rights on Capitol Hill and well beyond.

It will also mean an adjustment for a veteran lawmaker who has a well-earned reputation as a savvy backroom negotiator but not as someone given to rousing speeches, Sunday show appearances or showy acts of politicking.

“She will do whatever is necessary to make sure that the job gets done. So if she needs to be the more public face, she will do that. She might not love it. But she will do it,” said Teresa Purcell, a Washington state political consultant who managed Murray’s 1992 campaign. “Maybe it hasn’t been as necessary. But I think right now it is necessary.”

Those conversation were already underway on the Senate floor Wednesday, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), as the Senate took the failed vote to write a constitutional right to abortion into federal law. All 50 Republicans, plus Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), opposed advancing the bill aimed at codifying Roe, leaving it well short of the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster.

“What Patty said to me is, she’s very worried that the American people don’t really fully know what’s about to happen to them,” Gillibrand said. “Our job, and what she and I agreed we’re going to work on together, is lifting up the voice of the families and women who this is going to deeply affect.”

Murray’s Republican colleagues acknowledged she has been a more-than-worthy adversary in their partisan wrangling over abortion rights and other issues. But many say that there are limits to what she can proactively accomplish in a body where blocking something is much easier than passing something.

“She’s very effective,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the Health Committee. “I’m not sure she can come up with 60 votes.”

What Murray is counting on is a revival of the spirit that suffused her first campaign in the early 1990s, and Purcell said the new threat to Roe has highlighted not how far the Senate has come, but how far it still has to go.

“It’s been 30 years, and [women] are still over 50 percent of the population, and I have to give Senator Murray credit, because it’s exhausting to be the person who’s leading the charge,” Purcell said. “This absolutely goes to the need for more representation of all women.”

While Murray famously campaigned as “just a mom in tennis shoes,” it is often lost that her campaign message then had a sharper edge. She routinely attacked her opponents — who included two sitting congressmen, a Vietnam War hero and the top executive of Washington’s largest county — as interchangeable “guys in red ties and dark suits” who would never elevate the interests of women.

In fact, when Murray entered the race just weeks after Thomas was confirmed in 1991, she was taking on an entrenched Democratic incumbent — Democratic Sen. Brock Adams, a former Transportation Secretary who appeared poised to coast to a second term. But allegations of sexual assault and harassment forced Adams to resign in March 1992, upending the race. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court was taking up Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which until this year represented the most serious threat to the Roe precedent since it was decided in 1973.

The echoes will follow Murray to the campaign trail this year, where she is gearing up for what could be here toughest reelection fight ever.

Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley has raised $4.2 million according to recent campaign finance reports, the most raised by any Murray opponent in history. While that is well short of the $11.5 million that Murray has raised for the cycle, she will be facing a significant GOP onslaught in what is expected to be a difficult political environment for Democrats. And — should Murray and Smiley both emerge from Washington’s Aug. 2 all-party primary, as appears likely — it will be the first time since 1998 that Murray has faced another woman in a general election.

Murray is confident that her long record on women’s issues — which starts with abortion rights but also includes advocacy for child care, education funding and much more — will be a centerpiece of her campaign pitch. Smiley’s campaign did not respond to emails seeking comment on Murray or on her own abortion positions. Smiley declined to comment to local news outlets this month on the substance of the leaked Supreme Court opinion, though she has made previous public statements describing herself as “100 percent pro-life.”

Asked about Smiley, Murray said, “Every single person up for election will have to answer this question. This is not an answer where you can say it’s settled law. It’s clearly very not settled right now.”

But in the months until election season gears up in earnest, Murray said she is focused on developing a comprehensive strategy that can both spark a public outcry while also using whatever levers of power Democrats now possess to protect abortion rights. In the interview, she said she is contemplating hearings that would elucidate the effects of the end of Roe on American women and discussing legislation that could include guaranteeing the rights of military members to pursue in vitro fertilization to preventing states from tracking phone data of women who go out of state to seek abortions.

“I was just a mom sitting at home in 1992 when all of a sudden it became real to me,” she said, adding that most American women “don’t know how real it is yet because it hasn’t been finalized. It hasn’t been put in their laps except in states like Texas and Oklahoma. But this is not a moment for people to go, ‘Oh, gee whiz, that happened,’ because it won’t change unless you stand up. … My role is to make that happen.”

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

In June 2022 the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens now? The legality of abortion is left to individual states. The Post is tracking states where abortion is banned or under threat, as well as Democratic-dominated states that moved to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

Abortion pills: Abortion advocates are concerned a Texas judge’s upcoming abortion pill ruling could halt over half the legal abortions carried out nationwide. Here’s how the ruling could impact access to the abortion pill mifepristone.

Post-Roe America: With Roe overturned, women who had secret abortions before Roe v. Wade felt compelled to speak out. Other women, who were and seeking abortions while living in states with strict abortion bans shared also shared their experience with The Post through calls, text messages and other documentation that supported their accounts. Here are photos and stories from across America since the reversal of Roe v. Wade.