Democrats have zeroed in on the top issue to pummel Republicans with in their quest to win the 2022 midterm elections: the end of Roe v. Wade.
In dozens of ads backed by tens of millions of dollars, Democratic candidates, party committees and affiliated groups are attacking Republicans on the issue of abortion in key battleground races that will determine control of Congress, governorships and state legislatures.
Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general and the Democratic candidate for governor, opened his $16.9 million fall advertising campaign with an ad hitting Republican Doug Mastriano’s anti-abortion views as a threat to business investment in the state. Political committees connected to the Democratic Governors Association have slammed GOP candidates in Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Rhode Island for their opposition to abortion rights. In Texas, former congressman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke opened his general election campaign with ads hitting GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s work to enact the most restrictive and punitive anti-abortion laws in the country.
In the fight for Congress, Democrats’ main super PAC supporting House candidates rolled out ads hitting eight Republicans in crucial battleground districts for their positions opposed to abortion access. And after spending millions on ads this summer attacking four GOP Senate candidates for their abortion positions, the party’s chief Senate super PAC launched its latest salvo on Tuesday with a $2.3 million ad buy hammering Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters for opposing abortion access with no exceptions.
The ever-increasing ad avalanche on abortion signals that the conservative-majority Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn the nearly 50-year-old right to an abortion has flipped the issue on its head, forcing Republicans to answer for their unpopular anti-abortion positions as they are now actually becoming law.
“The threat to abortion rights used to be theoretical, but people now understand and believe the real impact — that candidates want to ban abortion and can ban abortion — and they are scared and they believe them,” said Jenny Lawson, president of Planned Parenthood Votes, the campaign arm of the pro-abortion rights group that has promised to spend $50 million on the midterm elections.
A Real-World Test Case
The decision to make the end of Roe the central negative attack line of the midterms follows from public and private polling showing that the Republican position on the issue is broadly and increasingly unpopular.
There have also been actual elections to test the issue’s salience, like the landslide defeat of a referendum stripping state constitutional abortion rights protection in Kansas on Aug. 2 and, more directly, Democrat Pat Ryan’s win in the New York 19th Congressional District special election on Aug. 24.
Ryan’s campaign advertising focused negative attacks on his GOP opponent Marc Molinaro over the issue of abortion. In beating Molinaro, a moderate who avoided the topic, Ryan outperformed President Joe Biden’s 2020 result in the district and showed how the issue worked against Republicans who weren’t even the most vocally anti-abortion. He showed a path forward for Democrats running in the kind of battleground districts Republicans need to win if they’re going to take control of the House.
“That was really an incredible real-world test case of how this was going to perform because it was very clearly an issue on the airwaves and, moreover, it was not even the most extreme case of an anti-choice Republican that we’re going to see here,” said Vriti Jain, deputy executive director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Ryan’s win in the NY-19 special election showed that the post-Dobbs political environment was different than past elections when Democrats tried to energize supporters by claiming Republicans would take away abortion rights.
Less than one year earlier, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, running for his second non-consecutive term as Virginia governor, tried and failed to rally opposition to Republican Glenn Youngkin by claiming Youngkin would ban abortion if elected.
“I think that the hard sell we had with voters is that they didn’t believe that Roe was going to go away as a right,” David Bergstrom, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, said. “And now people see that that’s not the case.”
“The threat to abortion rights used to be theoretical, but people now understand and believe the real impact — that candidates want to ban abortion and can ban abortion — and they are scared.”
– Jenny Lawson, president of Planned Parenthood Votes
There may be races where Democrats focus on other issues when there is even more salient ammunition for a negative attack, such as GOP Ohio House candidate J.R. Majewski’s attendance at the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
There are also some states, like Nevada and New Hampshire, that Democrats view as having historic pro-choice electorates and anticipate the issue working exceptionally well. In fact, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) launched her first general election ad attacking GOP nominee Don Bolduc on abortion on Wednesday.
Aside from these slight differences in races and state politics, Democratic operatives see the abortion issue working across demographic groups in almost any race.
“In qualitative work we have done, people bring it up unprompted as a concern,” Jain said. “What has surprised us is not that it pops in certain groups. It pops in every group.”
Women Driving The Response
Despite the widespread resonance of abortion as an issue, some evidence suggests that female voters are disproportionately driving the post-Dobbs thermostatic reaction against anti-abortion politics. In Kansas, women accounted for 69% of new voter registration between the day the Dobbs decision was released and the state’s vote on its anti-abortion referendum, according to research by Tom Bonier, the CEO of the political consulting firm TargetSmart.
This statistic was “more striking than any single election statistic I can recall discovering throughout my career,” Bonior wrote in a Sept. 3 New York Times op-ed.
Many of the ads run by Democrats and their affiliated groups feature women speaking directly to the camera about how GOP-backed abortion bans threaten their personal freedom and could have or did threaten their lives when they needed abortions.
Days after New Hampshire’s Sept. 13 primary election, Women Vote!, the super PAC run by the pro-choice women’s group EMILY’s List, went on air with a $1.2 million ad buy hitting GOP Senate candidate Bolduc on abortion. The ad features a woman who had complications during pregnancy and had an abortion to save her life.
Noting that Bolduc said that people should “rejoice” over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, she says, “My decision saved my life, and Don Bolduc shouldn’t be able to take that away.”
In an ad launched by Senate Majority PAC, the main super PAC for Senate Democrats, and VoteVets, a Democratic Party-aligned veterans organization, a female veteran whose husband died in service calls Arizona Republican Masters’ anti-abortion views the “kind of extremism and government control [that] is the opposite of what we fought for.”
In an ad run by the DSCC, Jennifer, a woman from Mesa, Arizona, recounts the abortion she had at 18 after her abusive partner impregnated her.
“Blake Masters has no idea what I went through, and he has no business making that decision for me or any woman,” she says.
And in Georgia, an ad jointly run by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and a subsidiary of the Democratic Governors Association features multiple women calling the abortion ban enacted by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp “an attack on the women of Georgia” that could result in women being “investigated and imprisoned for a miscarriage.”
‘Their Own Words’
Since Ryan’s win and the opening of the post-Labor Day fall campaign season, the number of ads targeting GOP candidates on abortion has increased dramatically. And Democrats have much riper targets than candidates like Molinaro, as many Republicans have publicly expressed opinions on abortion far outside of the mainstream.
In Arizona, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Senate Majority PAC and VoteVets have all run ads hitting Masters for calling support for abortion rights “demonic” and stating that “we should go further” than repealing Roe and enact a “federal personhood amendment” to ban abortion nationwide.
“‘My body, my choice,’ is ridiculous nonsense,” Mastriano is quoted saying in ads run by Shapiro and a Democratic Governors Association-affiliated PAC called Putting Pennsylvania First. These ads also highlight Mastriano’s opposition to exceptions that would allow abortions in the case of rape, incest or endangerment to a pregnant person’s life.
In an ad that launched on Sept. 8, Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock knocks GOP candidate Herschel Walker for his response to a question asking whether he supports any exceptions to an abortion ban. “Not right now I don’t,” Walker says.
TV ads from Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), Senate Majority PAC and Women Vote! are running GOP candidate Adam Laxalt’s statements referring to Roe as a “joke” and the decision overturning it as a “historic victory.”
In North Carolina, Duty & Honor PAC, a subsidiary of Senate Majority PAC, hit GOP Senate candidate Rep. Ted Budd for calling the end of Roe a “historic victory,” while Women Vote! put $2.7 million behind an ad noting that Budd co-sponsored a federal abortion ban bill in 2021.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers ran an ad hitting GOP candidate Tim Michels for telling a local TV interview that he supports the state’s 19th-century abortion ban that does not provide exceptions for rape or incest.
Similarly, in the Michigan gubernatorial race, Republican Tudor Dixon is being hammered for openly stating, on camera, her support for the 1931 abortion ban law that could go into effect in the state. That law provides no exceptions for rape or incest, and when asked if she was going to support such exceptions, Dixon replied, “I am not.”
In a Michigan congressional race, Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee went on the air on Wednesday hitting his GOP opponent, Paul Junge, for saying that Roe v. Wade provided “made-up rights” to women.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat, ran ads against her Republican opponent Yesli Vega in Virginia’s 7th congressional district for saying that women can’t get pregnant after being raped and supporting a nationwide abortion ban.
An ad from Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) shows footage of Republican nominee Zach Nunn raising a hand in a GOP primary debate agreeing that all abortions in the country should be banned with no exceptions for rape, incest or protecting the life of the mother.
In the face of this ad onslaught, a number of the GOP candidates have attempted to revise their positions.
Masters scrubbed his website of any mention of his support for a federal personhood amendment and his endorsement of jailing doctors who perform abortions. So did Republican congressional candidates running in Colorado, Michigan and North Carolina, and gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota and Oregon.
Some of these candidates have even released ads touting a different position on abortion than they previously held. Masters said that ads showing his actual prior statements on abortion are lies. In Minnesota and New Mexico, Republican gubernatorial candidates Scott Jensen and Mark Ronchetti, who previously expressed strong anti-abortion views, claim that they do not want to change their states’ laws allowing abortion. In response to ads run by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Republican Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley, who previously praised Texas’ anti-abortion laws, promises that she would not support an abortion ban in multiple ads.
But these walk-backs will be hard to carry off, as the public is well aware that Republicans oppose abortion rights and have for decades.
“The credibility of the attack is partially because this is something that Republicans have been clamoring for for 50 years,” Bergstrom said. “So, [voters] believe Republicans are generally inclined to support these policies. And also, we have them on video and audio saying it, and saying it repeatedly.”
A Nationwide Abortion Ban
Not all Republican candidates have provided video and audio recordings of their unpopular views on abortion for Democratic ad-makers. That doesn’t mean that they have been spared in attack ads. Instead, Democrats are attacking these Republicans for potentially providing votes for a Republican House or Senate majority that could then pass a national abortion ban.
“If Don Bolduc and congressional Republicans take control of the U.S. Senate, they would push for a nationwide abortion ban,” Hassan’s first general election ad states.
The same attack has already surfaced in the Pennsylvania Senate race between Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz, and in a host of House races.
“With Roe v. Wade overturned, Republican senators want to ban abortion nationwide. That could make doctors and nurses criminals, and they need Mehmet Oz to do it,” an ad from Planned Parenthood Votes says.
A House Majority PAC ad targeting John Duarte, the Republican candidate in California’s 13th Congressional District, says that “if he gets to Congress, Duarte will vote for partisan leaders in Washington who’ve pledged a nationwide abortion ban.”
A similar ad from the DCCC targeting George Logan, the Republican running in Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District, says Logan “pledged to back his party leaders, who would outlaw abortion nationwide.”
Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) has already run two ads backed by six-figure buys hitting her Republican opponent April Becker for being endorsed by the anti-abortion group Nevada Right to Life, which supports a nationwide abortion ban. Under fire, Becker clumsily backtracked her abortion position on Thursday by claiming she would oppose an abortion ban because she thinks it would be unconstitutional, a position that has angered anti-abortion allies.
This echoes the attack the DCCC and Ryan launched against Molinaro in the NY-19 special election race. That ad targeted Molinaro’s opposition to abortion, even though he tried not to talk about the issue, and noted that he would vote for Republican leaders who oppose abortion rights.
Democrats received some unexpected help in tying Republicans to a prospective nationwide abortion ban on Tuesday when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and declared that Republicans would pass it if given control of Congress.
Graham’s bill gives air to Democratic claims that Republicans would pursue a nationwide ban and forced GOP Senate candidates to state their support or opposition. Masters, Budd and Walker all backed the bill, while Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who has co-sponsored Graham’s previous nationwide abortion bans after 20 weeks, said the issue should be left to the states. Oz refused to say he was for it or against it, while Smiley and Colorado Senate candidate Joe O’Dea said they were opposed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave further confirmation to the potency of Democrats’ abortion attack when he responded to Graham’s bill by saying he would “prefer this be handled at the state level.”
Based on the Democratic Party’s response to Graham’s nationwide ban, the torrent of attack ads on abortion will intensify over the remaining weeks of the election.
As Planned Parenthood Votes’ Lawson says, “We’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
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