The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats spend heavily on abortion ads in key gubernatorial races

Protesters gather outside the Capitol in Phoenix in September to voice their dissent after a judge ruled that Arizona can enforce a near-total ban on abortions. (Matt York/AP)

In five key races for governor, Democrats are devoting the largest share of their ads to abortion, seeking to highlight their Republican opponents’ commitment to passing or preserving restrictions after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

As Democrats hope the issue will drive voter turnout, Republican gubernatorial candidates are leaning into advertising about crime and the economy.

The trend echoes the parties’ divergent pitches to voters in national races, but with added immediacy on the state level, where governors will play a key role in setting abortion policy by signing or vetoing legislation and by launching legal challenges to abortion laws.

A Washington Post analysis of data from AdImpact, which tracks television and digital ad spending, finds that 45 percent of Democratic candidates’ and issue groups’ TV advertising dollars in five states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania — has been spent on abortion ads. Those five states feature competitive gubernatorial races and Republican-led legislatures that could continue redefining abortion rights depending on which party wins the governorship.

The next two most common issues, education and crime, accounted for 10 and 8 percent respectively of the Democrats’ ad spending. As of Oct. 31, Democratic candidates in the five states have spent more than $41 million on the abortion ads, which have run more than 69,000 times. That total represents more than one-third of the $94 million spent nationwide on abortion rights ads in gubernatorial general election races.

Officials with the Democratic campaigns said polling makes it clear that highlighting abortion rights is the best hope to differentiate candidates and get voters to the polls.

“We knew this would be a big point in our messaging,” said Sam Roecker, senior adviser to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D). After the Supreme Court’s decision, “it really put this into focus because we were left with an abortion law from 1849, which passed one year after Wisconsin became a state, that has shut down all abortion providers.”

The analysis also shows that Republican gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania have spent nothing on abortion-related advertising since their general election campaigns began. Rather, the largest issue was crime and criminal justice reform, representing a combined 30 percent of spending. This was followed by the pandemic and jobs, which respectively represented 14.3 percent and 12.8 percent of spending.

During the primary, before Roe v. Wade was overturned, by contrast, Republican candidates in these five states collectively spent about $1 million on abortion ads that ran nearly 2,800 times. Those ads largely highlighted the candidates’ antiabortion stances.

Republican political strategists say that while abortion rights were a central issue after the Supreme Court’s June decision, voters are now more concerned about inflation and public safety.

“There was a little bit of a cooling-off since the summer on abortion, but what we are seeing is Democrats pouring gasoline on the fire to keep it going,” said Robert Coon, an Arkansas Republican strategist who is working on congressional and statewide races. “We have an economy that looks okay in some ways but, when using other measures, it doesn’t look so good. And in many areas, crime is a kitchen-table issue.”

In each of the five states, the outcome of the gubernatorial races could mean the difference between abortion being allowed — or banned with few or no exceptions. Democrats are trying to drive that point home to voters.

In Arizona, for instance, one television campaign ad funded by the Arizona Democratic Party for candidate Katie Hobbs warns that GOP challenger Kari Lake “wouldn’t just ban abortion, she’d criminalize it” and “force pregnancies for rape and incest.”

The Lake campaign did not respond to requests for comment. During the campaign, Lake has referred to people who provide abortion care as “executioners.” She has also said she would enforce a 1901 Arizona law that criminalizes abortion and does not provide exemptions for rape or incest.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, an ad from Evers says a foundation run by the family of Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels is funding a group that works “to outlaw birth control and ban abortion, even to save the life of the mother.”

Michels’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. In interviews and on his campaign website, Michels described a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailing the financial contributions to antiabortion groups as a “hit piece” but did not specifically dispute the facts. PolitiFact says Michels was once but is no longer a trustee of the family foundation.

In Georgia, women are told in a television ad by Stacey Abrams’s campaign that because of a six-week abortion law Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed, they could be “investigated and imprisoned for a miscarriage” if officials believe it happened due to an abortion procedure.

Kemp’s campaign called the ad a “disgusting lie” and pointed to a PolitiFact examination of a similar Abrams campaign ad that determined the claims were “false” — though the piece did note that some legal experts say vague wording in the law could give police discretion in investigating whether someone had a miscarriage or illegal abortion.

The ads highlight the stark differences on abortion rights among the candidates.

In his campaign for governor, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has spent more than $7 million on seven ads that have aired a total of 17,697 times in the general election to highlight his active role on the issue, including filing an amicus brief in support of the Justice Department’s challenge to a six-week abortion ban in Texas.

His Republican opponent, by contrast, is the lead sponsor of a bill modeled after that Texas law. State Sen. Doug Mastriano has stressed that as governor, he would have the power to sign such a measure. The bill allows for no exceptions — including the life of the pregnant individual — once a heartbeat is detected in the fetus. “My body, my choice is ridiculous nonsense,” Mastriano said during his campaign. Audio of this statement was used in several Shapiro campaign ads.

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has sued to block enforcement of a 1931 state abortion ban, has spent $605,462 on two abortion ads that aired 2,544 times in the general election. Her Republican challenger, Tudor Dixon, who says she will fight to enforce the 91-year-old law, has aired no abortion ads.

“The decision about a right to abortion has now been tossed to state capitals, and who your governor is quite likely will determine your right to abortion,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

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Democrats say nationwide polling backs up their focus on abortion rights, particularly against candidates who don’t favor exceptions in bans. A September Marquette Law School national poll found 8 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in all cases, including 9 percent of Republicans. The poll also showed 90 percent — including 81 percent of Republicans — said their state should allow a woman to obtain a legal abortion if she became pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

And a September Fox News poll also showed that in Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania, between 46 and 48 percent of registered voters were angry about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. In Georgia, 42 percent of registered voters were angry about the ruling. Fox did not ask the question of Michigan voters.

But some Republicans believe the intensive focus on abortion by the Democratic gubernatorial candidates is misguided and shows they are out of touch with many voters.

“The moderate and independent voters needed to build winning coalitions in competitive gubernatorial races are worried about the tanking economy, rising crime and costs of living, and having a role in their children’s education,” Republican Governors Association spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said in a statement. “It may excite extremes within the Democratic base, but it also only further reinforces to the persuadable voters needed to actually win these races that Democrats don’t care about their greatest concerns and have no plans on how to fix them.”

The GOP’s silence on the campaign airwaves about abortion rights in governor races also reflects the fact that many conservative candidates have softened their messaging in the general election — particularly on banning abortion with no exceptions.

In Wisconsin, for example, Michels’s campaign said he still believes there should be no exemptions. However, he recently said that if he were governor and the legislature sent him a bill that maintained an abortion ban but added exceptions for rape and incest, he would sign it.

In Pennsylvania, Mastriano has repeatedly said he does not believe in exceptions once a heartbeat can be detected in the fetus, including if the mother’s life is in jeopardy. But campaign treasurer Lana Orr wrote in an Oct. 26 email to The Post that “Doug is pro-life, but I am confident he would never endanger the life of the mother. Every life matters.” Orr did not respond to a question asking whether Mastriano had changed his position. He has made no public statements indicating a reversal and has not amended his abortion bill.

“I think the Republicans got caught off guard by how bad an issue this has been for them, but they have been trying to correct this by softening their positions and by trying to paint Democrats as extreme on the issue,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who leads focus groups.

Alice Crites, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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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.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.