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Calif. governor rents billboards in red states to tout abortion access

Newsom’s reelection campaign advertises abortion in states where it’s limited or illegal

“We want women to know that we have their backs,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said of his billboard campaign in red states. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group/AP)
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reelection campaign has rented billboards in six states with abortion bans, escalating the Democrat’s battle with conservative Republican governors and courting a First Amendment fight with Mississippi.

The ads on the billboards, viewed first by The Washington Post, direct women to a California state website that tells users how and where to get an abortion in the state, emphasizing that “you do not need to be a California resident to receive abortion services.”

“We want women to know that we have their backs,” Newsom said in an interview about the billboard campaign. “We care, they matter, and we’re not going to turn our backs on them because they’re from another state.”

One ad portrays a woman with her hands chained behind her back. “Texas doesn’t own your body. You do,” it reads. Another ad says that “California is ready to help” anyone who needs an abortion, adding a verse from the Gospel of Mark: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.”

The ads began appearing in Indiana, Mississippi, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas on Thursday. Each state dramatically limited abortion rights after the Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The governors of Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas are up for reelection in November. Reached for comment, none immediately responded to the billboard campaign.

Mississippi, South Dakota and Texas have banned most abortions, with Indiana joining them Thursday after the passage of a ban goes into effect. In Ohio and South Carolina, abortion is banned after six weeks of pregnancy, although both laws have been temporarily blocked in the courts.

Most of the Republican governors whose states got the billboard ads ignored them on Thursday, but South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem responded with a mocking tweet.

“In South Dakota, we are a destination for FREEDOM and LIFE,” Noem wrote. “Now that you’ve run your billboards in SD, why don’t you get to work cleaning up the human feces on the streets of your cities and turning the lights back on.”

Between 1973 and this summer, when the Court’s previous rulings on abortion rights were in effect, states were prohibited from enforcing bans before the viability of the fetus, typically interpreted as 24 weeks.

Newsom, whose own position in California was strengthened when he defeated a 2021 recall campaign, has been critical of Republican governors in several policy areas. He’s accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and other Republicans who have approved legislation to restrict discussions of gender and sexual orientation in public schools and to limit transgender health-care access, of being “bullies,” and targeting vulnerable residents for political clout.

“I can’t take what these governors are doing state after state affecting minorities, affecting vulnerable communities, threatening the Special Olympics with fines, going after the LGBTQ community, saying if you’ve been raped by your father you don’t have the right to express yourself and rights over your own body,” Newsom told ABC News last month.

Newsom’s actions have sparked speculation about a potential run for president, which he has rebuffed, saying he supports President Biden for reelection.

The California governor faces Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle in November’s election, and despite voter worries about crime and high housing prices, Newsom has led overwhelmingly in polls. At the start of this month, Newsom had raised more than $24 million for reelection, while Dahle had raised less than $500,000.

The funding for the billboard campaign came from Newsom’s reelection war chest, a sign of confidence in his own race.

“I’m doing this because I’m privileged to be able to do it,” Newsom told The Washington Post. “I’m doing this because I care. I’m doing it because the people that support my candidacy support this. And when many heard about this, they wanted to support additional efforts like it, to be fully transparent with you.”

Newsom was also anticipating a possible First Amendment challenge on some of the billboards. In Mississippi, the online magazine Slate and the nonprofit MayDay Health have rented out billboards which, respectively, advertise a podcast about abortion rights and a way to access at-home abortion medication. Last month, MayDay Health received a subpoena from Mississippi’s Republican attorney general, suggesting that the nonprofit could be prosecuted for encouraging now-illegal conduct.

Preventing advertising like this, said Newsom, would be a “gross violation of the Constitution.” If the campaign or billboard company were asked to take down the signs, he added, “we look forward to that fight.”

In a statement, a spokesman for Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) did not discuss the legality of the ad campaign, but dismissed Newsom’s strategy.

“It is very interesting to see Governor Newsom’s 2024 primary campaign extend to Mississippi,” said Cory Custer, Reeves’s deputy chief of staff for external affairs. “But we do suspect that most Mississippians will not be interested in what he is selling.”

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Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

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