Texas' near-total abortion ban injects new urgency into U.S. election campaigns

by Reuters
Thursday, 2 September 2021 23:08 GMT

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe participates in a campaign event at Lubber Run Park in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., July 23, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo

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Democrats hope the issue will galvanize moderate suburban voters and women to turn out in off-year elections, which will decide control of Congress and many state legislatures

By Andy Sullivan, Sharon Bernstein and Brad Brooks

Sept 2 (Reuters) - After the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to block a near-total ban on abortions by Texas, alarmed Democratic candidates and abortion rights advocates had a single, urgent message for voters on Thursday: Abortion rights are on the ballot.

Within hours of the court's decision, Democrats running in gubernatorial elections in California and Virginia this year warned their Republican rivals would outlaw abortion if they won, while making impassioned fundraising appeals.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Democratic-controlled chamber will vote to protect abortion rights nationwide later this month, but that faces uncertain prospects in the Senate.

For decades, Democrats have sounded the alarm about potential Republican attacks on abortion rights in the states and in the courts, often to their political benefit. But now, the threat is no longer "hypothetical," said Christina Polizzi, a spokesperson for the Democratic State Legislative Committee, which aims to elect Democrats to state legislatures.

While fearful about the Supreme Court's willingness to consider challenges to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, Democratic groups hope that the issue will galvanize moderate suburban voters and women to turn out in off-year elections, which will decide control of Congress and many state legislatures.

Aside from Texas, four other Republican-led states have also passed laws that outlaw all or nearly all abortions, and the Republican president of the Florida state Senate said on Thursday he would try to pass a similar ban.

"This should be a warning to all states in America they could go the way of Texas," Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said at a news conference.

Republicans, by contrast, largely avoided commenting on the decision. Several Republican groups responsible for winning congressional and legislative elections likewise did not respond to a request for comment.

About 52 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 36 percent think it should be illegal, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support abortion rights, though support has risen somewhat among both groups in recent years.

While Republicans have harnessed conservatives' anti-abortion views to their advantage in past elections, Democrats could benefit this time around if they see abortion rights directly under threat, political analysts said.

On Thursday, the Democratic Governors Association asked for donations to help protect reproductive rights in this year's gubernatorial races in Virginia, New Jersey and California.

"The threat wasn't real enough until recently to trigger mobilization on the left," said University of Michigan political scientist Nicholas Valentino, who cautioned that the November 2022 elections were still far off.

Between now and the end of 2022, voters will elect governors in 38 states, as well as 91 of the 99 legislative chambers. Control of both chambers of Congress will also be at stake.

The first of those elections is in California on Sept. 14, where Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom faces a possible recall. Newsom's campaign plans to work with abortion rights advocates to ensure that Democratic voters don't stay home that day, spokesman Nathan Click said.

"Texas has effectively banned a woman's right to choose," Newsom said on Twitter. "This could be the future of CA if we don't vote NO on the Republican Recall by 9/14."

In Virginia, which votes for governor and state assembly in November, McAuliffe's campaign has released two ads saying Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin wants to ban abortion and will continue hammering him on that point, his campaign said.

Youngkin's campaign responded by calling McAuliffe a "pro-abortion extremist" on Twitter. Youngkin has said he opposes abortion but has not made it a major focus of his campaign.

Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, said he did not think the Texas law alone was enough to ignite widespread revolt against Republicans in suburbs around the state.

"There needs to be a Trump-esque type of threat to the Democrats, and that would have to be the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade," Stein said.

DEMOCRATS STRUGGLE IN STATES

The Supreme Court ruling highlights Democrats' struggles to make gains outside of Washington in an era of growing political polarization. Party officials privately acknowledge that they have not paid enough attention to state races over the past decade after Republicans have consolidated gains at that level.

Democrats raised a record $51 million to devote to legislative races last year, but still failed to win control in their targeted states of Texas, North Carolina, Arizona, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

Republicans control the governor's mansion and the legislature in 23 of the 50 states and are poised to use redistricting to lock in their advantage over the coming decade. Democrats control 15 states and partisan advantage is divided in the remainder.

The divide on abortion is especially stark.

State legislatures enacted a record 90 abortion restrictions in the first half of the year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Almost all of those laws, including several that ban abortions entirely, were passed in Republican-controlled states.

Many Democratic-controlled states, meanwhile, have expanded abortion access.

Texas represents a particular frustration for Democrats, who have seen a growing minority population as an opportunity to flip the most populous Republican-led state. But they have repeatedly come up short in state contests, and this week the Republican-led legislature passed new restrictions on voting and an expansion of gun rights.

Republicans said opinion polls show that voters support what they have been doing.

"All indications are that Texas voters believe in protecting easy and fraud-resistant access to polls, they believe in the protection of life ... they believe in the right to self defense," said James Dickey, a former head of the Texas Republican Party.

Democratic strategists say the Supreme Court decision could help their candidates in suburban areas that have trended away from the Republicans in recent years.

"Republicans for years have been competing against one another to be more and more extreme," said Mike Collier, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in Texas. "They are creating tremendous, tremendous political liabilities."

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan, Brad Brooks and Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Grant McCool)