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In midterm battlegrounds, both parties try to weaponize abortion

Democrats and Republicans are trying to put opposing candidates on the defensive by forcing them to take difficult stances that won’t play well in November.
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The draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn constitutional abortion protections is opening a new front in competitive midterm races across the country, as each party looks to paint the other as woefully out of step with voters.

With control of Congress at stake, Democrats and Republicans alike are trying to put opposing candidates on the defensive by forcing them to take difficult stances that wouldn’t play well in a competitive general election race in November.

Some of the largest groups funding gubernatorial and Senate contests are racing to fine-tune their messaging. The National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a memo this week urging GOP candidates to act as a “compassionate, consensus builder” and portray Democrats as extreme.

One of the front lines is Nevada, where abortion rights have limited protections under state law.

In a new campaign memo first obtained by NBC News, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s campaign lays out an argument that abortion is a high-stakes issue for voters heading into November.

“An anti-choice governor and legislature could undo or undermine pro-choice policies … which are not codified in Nevada law,” the memo reads, suggesting a Republican could steer state dollars away from health centers or contraceptives.

The messaging is very much focused on Joe Lombardo, the GOP candidate for governor whom former President Donald Trump has endorsed in a 15-way primary scheduled for June 14.

On Thursday, activists supporting Sisolak are scheduled to hold a news conference and press Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff, to detail his opposition to abortion, including whether he would try to rescind funding for abortion care centers if he is elected.

U.S. Supreme Court confirms draft ruling overturning abortion rights authentic
Anti-abortion and abortion rights demonstrators during a protest outside the Supreme Court on May 3, 2022.Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“We’d like to know where Joe Lombardo stands,” said Caroline Mello Roberson, the Southwest regional director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a group that opposes abortion restrictions. “He’s saying on the one hand he’s ‘pro-life’ but he won’t upend the laws in place here. Those seem to be in conflict. As a leader of the state, we want to know where he stands on policy.”

In a statement to NBC News, Lombardo’s campaign accused Sisolak of trying to interfere in the GOP primary because Lombardo has led in recent polling, adding that “abortion policy is already addressed in Nevada law. … The voters put it into law and only they can change it.”

In Michigan, strategists for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer see an opening to pitch her as the last defense against a so-called trigger law that would impose criminal penalties on women who get abortions in the state should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. The same is true of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who, like Whitmer, must contend with a Republican-controlled Legislature.

“There are no unimportant races anymore,” said Heather Colburn, a Wisconsin-based strategist who is advising Whitmer. “Once we start throwing these rights back to the states, who runs those states and the legislative bodies are crucial.”

While Democrats seek to cast GOP candidates as hostile to women’s reproductive rights, Republicans see a fresh opportunity to put Democrats on the defensive by pressing them on a difficult question: At what point in the nine-month pregnancy should abortion be outlawed?

They believe a Democratic Party that has moved steadily to the left when it comes to abortion is at odds with the broader population. If Democratic candidates try to appease their liberal base by rejecting many, if not all, abortion restrictions, they risk losing votes in a general election, Republicans argue.

Democrats, meanwhile, maintain the opposite is true, arguing that Republicans in battleground states will need to specify what they support: an abortion ban six weeks after conception? A bill that would prohibit abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected? Any answer could risk alienating a swath of voters in November. 

“Every Republican has to have an answer on: Will you support a federal law for a six-week ban? Where are the exceptions? What’s [Georgia Republican senatorial candidate] Herschel Walker going to say? What are they going to say in Nevada? What are they going to say in New Hampshire?” said Pete Giangreco, a national Democratic strategist. “It could really push these races from dead heat to 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-point races.”

Polling suggests many Americans favor restrictions depending on how far along a woman is in her pregnancy. A Wall Street Journal survey released last month, for example, found that a plurality want abortion to be banned after 15 weeks unless the woman’s health is in danger.

“I think pro-life Republicans can actually use the abortion issue to their benefit,” said John McLaughlin, a pollster for former President Donald Trump.

Already, Republican strategists are highlighting instances in which Democrats won’t explicitly say whether they would ban abortion even at late stages of pregnancy.

“Democrat politicians are squarely outside of the mainstream when it comes to unlimited, taxpayer-funded abortion,” said Nathan Brand, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “More than 80 percent of Americans support limits on abortion, yet Democrats up and down the ticket can’t name a single limit they would support.”

The RNC pointed to an interview Wednesday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press Daily,” in which host Chuck Todd questioned Ohio’s newly minted Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Nan Whaley, about whether there should be any statutory limits on when a woman can get an abortion. Whaley didn’t mention one in her answer. Instead, she said the decision should be made by women, their families and their doctors.

“This is a very personal, tough decision for women,” she said. “I don’t think government should be involved in it.”

Katie Hobbs, a Democratic candidate for governor in Arizona, gave a similar response about a new state law that bans abortions after 15 weeks. Asked whether that was an appropriate time period or whether it should be longer, Hobbs said, “Abortion is a personal decision between a woman and her family and her doctor, and that’s something that needs to be discussed in the medical exam room — not by politicians.”

A NARAL-Pro Choice America survey in Arizona this year found that abortion was an issue that would spur Democrats to turn out at the polls.

There is no guarantee that the GOP strategy on abortion will succeed and that voters will be put off by a Democratic candidate’s view on the precise point when a pregnancy should be taken to term. Broadly speaking, Americans support abortion rights. An NBC News survey in August found that 54 percent of respondents believed that abortion should be legal “always” or “most of the time.” Given that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, candidates running in states that are more accepting of abortion rights are expected to do well on Election Day, analysts said.

That would bode well for Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who is facing a tough re-election campaign in the battleground state of New Hampshire. Her support for abortion rights could give her candidacy a needed jolt.

“This is an issue that does help her — in a blue state where she’s kind of in trouble,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who conducts regular focus groups with voters.