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Top One Magazine

Abortion upends the battle for a dozen key governorships

The battle over abortion rights will be won or lost in state capitals, not Washington.

That reality has in the past three months upended battleground governor races — where the winners could quite literally determine the level of access to abortion for millions of women.

And the way candidates are running on the issue could hardly be more polarized: Democrats are going all in. Republicans want to change the topic.

Spending on abortion-related ads shows how thoroughly abortion has transformed these races, giving Democrats an opening to go on offense in an otherwise challenging year for them to be on the ballot.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Democratic gubernatorial candidates and outside groups have spent nearly $34 million on television ads that mention abortion, according to data compiled by the ad tracking firm AdImpact. Republican gubernatorial candidates, by contrast, have collectively spent around $1.1 million on TV ads mentioning abortion. Instead, they’re focusing on issues such as the economy or crime, arguing Democrats are ignoring the issues they believe voters care about the most.

Thirty-six states are holding governor contests this year, and about a dozen of them are expected to be competitive. The issue is top of mind for voters in states like Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin, where pre-Roe laws banning abortion in nearly all cases are being challenged in court — and where the governor will play a key role in setting policy when legislatures reconvene in 2023.

On Friday, an Arizona court said that a 19th-century abortion ban can take effect, drawing cries of outrage from Democrats there — and mostly silence from Republicans.

“I’m mourning today’s decision,” Katie Hobbs, the Democratic nominee for the state’s open seat, said in a statement. “We now must turn our anger into motivation to win in November and restore our fundamental rights.”

Republicans control more gubernatorial mansions across the country heading into November, 28 to 22 for Democrats. But more Americans live in a state with a Democratic governor than a Republican one, a balance that forecasters predict will be unchanged after the election.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, told an election forum earlier this month that abortion is the rare issue that animates both parties’ bases and moderate voters at the same time.

“Oftentimes, the political professionals separate issues as, ‘Here’s an issue that’s going to turn out your base,’ and ‘Here’s an issue that’s going to persuade moderate voters,’” Cooper said. “Well, abortion rights covers both.”

But Republicans maintain that Democrats’ focus on the issue on the trail is misguided.

“The moderate and independent voters needed to build winning coalitions in competitive governors races are worried about the economy, crime, and education,” Republican Governors Association spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said. “Democrats continuing to direct the conversation to their own extremist position of on-demand abortions up until birth may excite their base, but it only further reinforces to the voters they would need to actually win that Democrats not only don’t care about their greatest concerns but also that they have no plans to address them.”

The power of governors to set abortion policy has been on display in the three months since the Dobbs decision. Two states have passed new abortion bans this summer — Indiana and West Virginia — with more likely to take up abortion bills when their legislatures reconvene next year.

But Republican governors who lauded the court’s ruling have been largely mum since — even in red states where they don’t have to worry about the electoral consequences. When West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, signed his state’s new abortion ban into law earlier this month, his office didn’t even issue a press release — and his response on Twitter was understated.

“I said from the beginning that if [West Virginia] legislators brought me a bill that protected life and included reasonable and logical exceptions I would sign it, and that’s what I did today,” the governor wrote.

How Republican gubernatorial candidates are talking about abortion is illustrative, however: A handful who previously called themselves “pro-life” with little wiggle room have tried to push back against Democratic attacks on abortion in paid advertising by emphasizing their opposition to late-term abortions and trying to cast the issue as either settled law in their state or something voters should weigh in on directly at the ballot box.

Prominent among them is Mark Ronchetti, a former TV weatherperson who is challenging Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, where abortion is legal throughout pregnancy. Ronchetti — who described himself as “strongly pro-life” during his 2020 Senate campaign — has now aired a series of TV ads seeking to neutralize the issue. Earlier this month, he rolled out his second ad on abortion, which features him and his wife.

In the ad, Ronchetti says his position is “end late-term abortion,” while trying to decouple his candidacy from the issue. “Honestly, no politician should decide this. You should,” he says in the ad, calling for the issue to appear on a statewide ballot — a notable departure from the position several Republican state legislatures have taken.

Other Republican gubernatorial candidates have similarly tried to remove themselves from the abortion debate. Former state Sen. Scott Jensen, the Republican nominee in Minnesota who said earlier this year before the Dobbs decision that he would “try to ban abortion” as governor, also went up with an ad recently trying to contrast himself with Democratic Gov. Tim Walz.

In the ad, Jensen, while cradling a small baby, accuses Walz of “weaponizing” the issue, saying it “is a protected constitutional right and no governor can change that, and I’m not running to do that.” In Minnesota, the state Supreme Court has recognized the right to abortion under the state Constitution.

In Nevada, Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has said that while he personally opposes abortion, he will respect the state’s 1990 ballot referendum upholding the right to abortion. A pro-Lombardo outside group is running an ad saying “politicians are trying to scare you about abortion,” noting that the state’s abortion law can only be changed by another ballot measure. And last week, Lombardo said he would fight a national abortion ban were Congress to pass one.

At the same time, Lombardo’s campaign sponsored an event for Nevada Right to Life, a group that opposes abortions at all stages of pregnancy, and paid two crisis pregnancy centers for event-related fees.

It’s been a challenging needle for Lombardo to thread in the close contest against Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in a Western state that often chafes at government interference with individual liberties — and especially running alongside Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt who has been outspoken on the abortion issue. For instance, during a conversation with faith leaders, Laxalt called the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision “a joke,” according to audio obtained by The Nevada Independent. (Laxalt also recently rolled out an ad noting that abortion rights are protected in the state, also trying to rebuff attacks on the issue.)

“Anybody with half a brain before this year would’ve said, ‘Nevada voters have spoken.’ That’s one of the age-old dodges. But that’s not good enough now because there are those that are expecting you to say, ‘Yeah, I’m all for a ban,’” a Republican strategist in Nevada, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the governor’s race, said. “Lombardo and some of the others are probably suffering from a bout of nausea trying to figure out what to do here.”

“Is Joe Lombardo going to go up on TV and say, ‘I support abortion’ or ‘I support a woman’s right to choose?’ Probably not. He’s going to have to withstand the attacks,” the strategist added.

Not all Democrats have been making abortion a centerpiece of their race, however. In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly lauded the decisive victory for abortion-rights proponents at the ballot box in August, where voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would have allowed the legislature to ban abortion, but has run her campaign against Republican Derek Schmidt focused on the state budget, school funding and jobs.

“The August 2nd vote shows that Kansans want their government focused on things like the economy and schools — not intervening in private medical decisions,” Kelly campaign spokesperson Lauren Fitzgerald said. “Now that voters have spoken clearly, Governor Kelly will remain focused on bringing both parties together to get results — a balanced budget, cutting taxes, fully funding schools and attracting new businesses to the state.”

Republican gubernatorial candidates elsewhere who have not tried to triangulate their position with TV ads on abortion have, at times, sought to downplay it. The day the Dobbs decision was handed down, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee and an ardent proponent of a no-exceptions abortion ban, shrugged off the issue as a distraction. But he told a reporter last week that abortion is “the single most important issue, I think, in our lifetime,” casting the race as a stark choice.

Michigan Republican Tudor Dixon, who is running to unseat Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has consistently defended her belief there should be a complete ban on abortion, even as Whitmer and her allies have continued to hammer her over it. Abortion is legal in Michigan for the time being because courts have blocked enforcement of the state’s 1931 abortion ban. But that could change depending on a final decision from the state Supreme Court and the outcome of a measure to protect abortion rights that will appear on the ballot in November.

Republicans in the state have hoped that the ballot initiative could serve as a release valve of sorts for the issue, allowing voters to separate their votes on abortion from their votes for governor.

“And just like that you can vote for Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion agenda & still vote against her,” Dixon tweeted the day the abortion ballot measure was placed on the ballot. “Gretchen, time to stop hiding behind your BS ads.”

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