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Abortion becomes a ‘huge motivator’ in governor races

The new Texas abortion ban is refocusing both parties’ attention on races for state office over the next year, setting the stage for a clash over abortion rights at the ballot box.

On Wednesday, outraged Democrats sought to drag the issue of abortion rights into elections across the country, particularly in two key, blue-state governor’s races this fall: California and Virginia.

“It will be a huge motivator for individuals to come out and vote,” Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor who is running again, said in an interview. He repeatedly described himself as a “brick wall” on women’s rights.

Between the Supreme Court’s inaction in the Texas case — allowing a law that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy to take effect earlier Wednesday — and a looming high court case challenging the Roe v. Wade precedent, abortion rights are moving to the forefront of the 2022 midterms. The Supreme Court’s next major abortion case will be heard in the court’s new term beginning this fall and is likely to be decided by next summer, months before the election.

“We’re in this historic moment where the court has chosen to take up a major abortion case. There’s been a crescendo,” Mallory Quigley, a vice president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. “A lot will depend on what the outcome of the Dobbs case is. All of us on the pro-life side, we’re hoping that the outcome is that governors’ handcuffs will be taken off.”

Even before this week’s developments, McAuliffe has sought to elevate his support of abortion rights. Virginia is one of three gubernatorial contests this year, along with New Jersey and the California recall, and has long been seen as a political bellwether.

Earlier this week, McAuliffe launched a new TV ad attacking Glenn Youngkin, his Republican opponent, featuring a doctor who said Youngkin had a “far-right agenda” on abortion. AdImpact, a political ad tracking service, reported over $92,000 in spending on the ad since it launched on Tuesday, airing over 200 times across the state in two days. The ad, along with an older second ad also attacking Youngkin on abortion, accounted for 50 percent of the campaign’s total airings in that timeframe, including primetime spots like during ABC’s “Bachelor in Paradise.”

When asked for comment or an interview about the Texas ban, Youngkin’s campaign pointed to audio of a press gaggle at a Tuesday event hosted by Virginia FREE, a business group, where Youngkin did not directly answer if he supports the Texas ban when asked. “I’m most focused on keeping Terry McAuliffe from his extreme agenda” on abortion, he says in the clip shared by the campaign. “I’m pro-life. I believe in exceptions in the case of rape, in the case of incest and in the case when the mother’s life is in jeopardy.”

The Texas law does not have exemptions for rape or incest.

McAuliffe hammered Youngkin as duplicitous on the issue, pointing to a video secretly recorded by The Undercurrent, a liberal “grassroots political web-show,” and shared with the website the American Independent. (The Independent is funded, in part, by the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge.)

In the video, which was first published in early July and later featured in a McAuliffe ad, Youngkin says “when I’m governor, and I have a majority in the [state] House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.” In a statement at the time, Youngkin spokesperson Matt Wolking said in an email to The Washington Post that “this deceptively recorded audio demonstrates that Glenn Youngkin says the same thing no matter who he is talking to,” and attacked McAuliffe.

Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life, which hosts a major anti-abortion rally in Washington every year, wrote in an email that she expected her home state of Virginia “will be important when it comes to a debate about abortion,” attacking both McAuliffe and his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam, for comments the sitting governor made during a fight over abortion in 2019.

March for Life is planning on holding a Virgina rally in Richmond, the state capital, later this month, it’s third annual march in the state. “We are anticipating that the event will inspire voter participation in November’s election,” she wrote. Speakers have not yet been announced.

And in California, Democrats have sought to elevate the ban ahead of this month’s recall election, less than two weeks away. Embattled Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted that the Supreme Court had “eviscerated the protection of a woman’s right to choose,” and allies quickly tied it to the recall.

The head of Planned Parenthood in California used the moment to urge voters to reject the recall. Abortion rights activists have been activating their supporters in recent weeks, using the threat to galvanize opposition to the recall. “There is no question that access to abortion is on the ballot in two weeks,” Jodi Hicks, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, said in a statement.

Many of the Republican recall candidates oppose abortion or have been silent on the issue, with the exception of former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who supports abortion as a legal option. It’s also unclear how much a Republican governor could chip away at abortion rights in California, given that the state has some of the strongest abortion protections in the country and both houses of the state legislature have Democratic supermajorities — something radio host Larry Elder, the leading Republican candidate in the recall election, noted during a Wednesday press conference.

“This is not anything that’s on my priority list,” Elder said of abortion. “And in the unlikely event that Roe v. Wade is overturned … we have 2/3rds supermajorities in the [legislature] … and there’s zero possibility that all of a sudden, those two-thirds are going to suddenly become pro-life like Larry Elder.”

Candidates and operatives on both sides said they believe that the Texas decision, combined with the looming Dobbs case, said abortion politics could motivate voters to turn out. “It will be a cornerstone of races in ‘21. And I expect that it will have a significant role in many races in ‘22,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, who is up for reelection herself in 2022.

Lujan Grisham said the issue would be particularly salient among college educated women, a key part of the Democratic coalition, along with women in suburban and urban areas. She noted that it was a particularly strong issue among the Democratic base, saying that she “ran solely” on reproductive rights during her 2012 congressional primary victory.

Between 2021 and 2022, 36 states will hold elections for governor, and all but two states will vote for state legislature. Nationally, 54 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases, while 42 percent think it should be illegal, according to a recent NBC News poll.

But while the 2022 landscape won’t just be fought in blue-leaning territory like California and Virginia, Lujan Grisham said she believed the issue “has become relevant now for women and their families everywhere, in every pocket” of the country. She said to expect the DGA to highlight the issue in advertising and other outreach.

Quigley, of SBA List, said her organization would focus on turning out two different kind of voters: “People who are strongly pro-life who perhaps are maybe fatigued over the last few election cycles,” and those who support restrictions on abortions but may be considering voting for Democratic candidates for other issues.

“Whether it’s climate change or health care or immigration or in 2020, just personality,” Quigley said. “When we explain to them the difference that exists between the two candidates on this issue, and those sharp, sharp contrasts that exist, they can be persuaded to vote pro-life.”

The anti-abortion group has already begun knocking on doors in Georgia and Arizona, two states that have competitive Senate and gubernatorial races in 2022. The group has also been involved in efforts to create new restrictions for voting in several states.

McAuliffe, for his part, predicted backlash compared to the last time he ran for governor. “I saw this from ‘13,” he said. “It just motivates, first of all, the Democratic base.”

Victoria Colliver and Alice Miranda Ollstein contributed to this report.

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