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In Key 2019 Races, Activists Gear Up For Big Fight Over Abortion

Nov 4, 2019
Originally published on November 5, 2019 6:38 am

On a recent, cloudy fall afternoon, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin stood outside the governor's mansion in Frankfort, flanked by a couple dozen activists in blue T-shirts, holding signs that read, "I Vote Pro-Life."

"It took me a while to figure out why I keep seeing these blue T-shirts," Bevin joked as he turned to the volunteers. "I wasn't sure who you were, but I'm just grateful to you."

These activists have been door-knocking across Kentucky on Bevin's behalf, to reach 200,000 voters before the election on Nov. 5.

The Susan B. Anthony List, a national anti-abortion-rights group, is organizing the effort. The organization has worked to elect conservative U.S. senators and helped push through the confirmation of President Trump's Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser was at Bevin's event to endorse the governor and other Republicans running for statewide office. She and anti-abortion-rights activists like her say they are supporting politicians who will lead Kentucky and other states "into this next chapter of the pro-life movement, which is the most important chapter of the pro-life movement since Roe v. Wade," she said.

For the first time in decades, the Supreme Court may be on the verge of substantially rolling back the right to an abortion guaranteed in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and others. A change like that would give governors and state lawmakers the final say for women living in their states.

Volunteer Patrick Hall in Lexington, Ky., knocks on a door for Bevin on behalf of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion organization.
Sarah McCammon / NPR

Bevin has been a consistent and vocal opponent of abortion rights in Kentucky. He's accused his Democratic opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, of taking "blood money" because of his support from abortion-rights groups.

Bevin signed a law this year that bans abortion as soon as cardiac activity can be detected. That law is currently tied up in litigation. At his event, Bevin told supporters he'd like to go further. "It wouldn't bother me one lick if there wasn't an abortion provider in this state. It wouldn't," Bevin said. "Our state wouldn't be less well-served by that."

Bevin may need support from anti-abortion-rights activists as he runs for reelection. He's one of the least popular governors in the country, known for an abrasive style and for clashing with teachers unions over their pensions.

Bevin is facing a formidable challenge from Beshear. Some prominent Republicans are breaking with Bevin to back Beshear.

A recent retiree from Lexington, Chuck Eddy, is leading a volunteer group for Republicans who support Beshear. He's going door to door, handing out flyers provided by the Beshear campaign. Eddy says he opposes abortion in most cases but that Kentucky already has multiple abortion restrictions on the books.

Eddy believes Bevin is using abortion to try to distract voters from other issues.

"He's pushing that so much because he doesn't have a local story to tell," Eddy says. "People are so unhappy with what he's doing on education, health care and how he talks that they just don't want him."

Chuck Eddy is leading a volunteer group for Republicans who support the Democratic State Attorney General Andy Beshear, who is running for governor.
Sarah McCammon / NPR

Against that backdrop, abortion-rights opponents are trying to help Bevin stay in office.

The SBA List is spending $750,000 in Kentucky to back Bevin, including digital ads, mailers and teams of door-to-door canvassers.

One door they knocked on recently belonged to Mark Randle, a pastor of a church in Lexington. Randle said he thinks Bevin has made "a million mistakes" — including his fight with teachers, but he still supports him, in part because of his views on abortion.

"If he weren't pro-life, I wouldn't vote for him at all," Randle said. "So that is a game-changer there."

Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky journalist and political columnist, said the abortion issue could help Bevin in this conservative state.

"Abortion plays a bigger role in the governor's race this year than it ever has," Cross said. "Bevin needs, badly, a base turnout among people who ought to be voting for him — many of whom are not because of his pugnacious personality."

Meanwhile, the abortion-rights group NARAL has announced its five-figure digital ad campaign telling Kentucky voters that Bevin supports "punishing women" by criminalizing abortion.

In Virginia, a similar fight is playing out in another off-year election for control of the state legislature. Republicans narrowly outnumber Democrats in a state that's trending increasingly blue.

SBA List has sent out mailers attacking half a dozen Democratic state lawmakers who supported a failed proposal earlier this year to remove some restrictions on third-trimester abortion.

Abortion-rights groups are fighting back — including Planned Parenthood and Emily's List, the latter of which is spending about $2 million on Virginia legislative races this year.

In an interview, Dannenfelser of SBA List said the 2019 elections are the beginning of a larger push on the abortion issue in political campaigns to come.

"We are hoping and planning that there's gonna be a shift, where governors have more say — with their legislatures — over what abortion law is," she said. "The left knows that; we know that."

Glen Halva-Neubauer, a politics professor at Furman University, said the Supreme Court is likely to move in a direction that puts state legislatures and governors "right at the crux" of setting abortion policy — and that will be reflected in political campaigns for those offices.

"I think after many years of being relatively dormant as an issue, we are going to see a next big debate over abortion," Halva-Neubauer said. "And it's going to infuse our politics in a way that we haven't seen, probably, for 15 or so years."

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So if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, states would have even more power to prohibit abortion. And that means governors and state lawmakers could have the final say. Activists on both sides of the issue are making that point to voters ahead of some key elections tomorrow. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, those races might offer a preview of how abortion will play in the 2020 elections.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: On a recent cloudy fall afternoon, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin stood on the steps of the governor's mansion in Frankfort flanked by a couple dozen activists wearing blue T-shirts and holding matching signs that read, I vote pro-life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT BEVIN: It took me a while to figure out why I keep seeing these blue T-shirts. I wasn't sure who you were. But I'm just grateful to you.

MCCAMMON: Bevin, a Republican, was surrounded by activists who've been door-knocking across Kentucky on his behalf with a goal of reaching 200,000 voters by Election Day tomorrow. They've been organized by a major national anti-abortion rights group, the Susan B. Anthony List. The organization has worked to elect conservative U.S. senators and helped push through the confirmation of President Trump's Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said she was there to endorse Bevin and other Republicans running for statewide office.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: Who we know will lead Kentucky into this next chapter of the pro-life movement, which is the most important chapter of the pro-life movement since Roe v. Wade.

MCCAMMON: For the first time in decades, the Supreme Court may be on the verge of substantially rolling back the guarantee of a right to an abortion. And now activists like Dannenfelser are looking to state officials like Bevin to support new abortion restrictions. Bevin has been a consistent and vocal opponent of abortion rights in Kentucky, signing a law this year that bans the procedure as soon as cardiac activity can be detected. That law is currently tied up in litigation, but Bevin told supporters he'd like to go further.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEVIN: Here's the thing, it wouldn't bother me one lick if there wasn't an abortion provider in the state - it wouldn't.

MCCAMMON: Bevin may need the support from anti-abortion rights activists as he runs for reelection. He's one of the least popular governors in the country, known for an abrasive style and for clashing with teachers' unions over their pensions. Bevin is facing a formidable challenge from Democratic state Attorney General Andy Beshear. Beshear has been endorsed by some prominent Republicans in Kentucky. Against that backdrop, activists are trying to help Bevin stay in office.

PATRICK HALL: Hey, how you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can I help you?

HALL: My name is Patrick Hall. I'm with the Susan B. Anthony List. We're a pro-life organization.

MCCAMMON: The SBA List is spending three quarters of a million dollars to support Bevin and other Kentucky Republicans through digital ads and mailers and teams of door-to-door canvassers. On a recent Saturday, one door they knock on belongs to Mark Randle, a pastor of a church in Lexington. Randall says he thinks Bevin has made, quote, "a million mistakes," including his fight with teachers, but he still supports him - in part because of his views on abortion.

MARK RANDLE: I'm the son of a public school teacher. Don't mess with teachers - of all things, don't do that. I mean, we got to fix the budget, but don't mess with teachers.

MCCAMMON: But you're still voting for him.

RANDLE: Yeah, I'm going to vote for him.

MCCAMMON: What do you agree with him on?

RANDLE: Certainly the abortion issue, without question.

MCCAMMON: Meanwhile, the abortion rights group NARAL has announced its own five-figure digital ad campaign telling Kentucky voters that Bevin supports, quote, "punishing women by criminalizing abortion." Sam Newton, with Democrat Andy Beshear's campaign, says focusing on abortion is a last-ditch effort for Bevin and his supporters.

SAM NEWTON: Matt Bevin is going to try to bring this up a hundred different ways because after four years, he's failed. He's failed Kentucky, and he knows he's extremely unpopular

MCCAMMON: In Virginia, a similar fight is playing out in another off-year election for control of the state legislature. Republicans narrowly outnumber Democrats in a state that's trending increasingly blue. SBA List has sent out mailers and released digital ads attacking half a dozen Democrats for supporting a failed proposal earlier this year to remove some restrictions on third trimester abortion. And abortion rights advocates are fighting back, like in this digital ad from Planned Parenthood's PAC on behalf of a Democratic candidate for Virginia state Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She'll stand up to extreme politicians in Virginia who have attacked access to reproductive health care, including safe legal abortion.

MCCAMMON: Planned Parenthood is investing more than a million dollars in Virginia legislative races this year. Emily's List, another group that backs candidates who support abortion rights, is spending about 2 million. Marjorie Dannenfelser with the anti-abortion SBA List says as the battle over abortion rights intensifies in the states, advocates on both sides will have to pay more attention to these kinds of races.

DANNENFELSER: We're hoping and planning that there's going to be a shift where governors have more say with their legislatures over what abortion law is. So the left knows that, we know that. Everyone's focusing who cares about this issue on governorships and state legislatures for exactly the same reason.

MCCAMMON: Abortion rights will be among the key issues at stake as voters in a handful of states head to the polls tomorrow - and in many more races in 2020. Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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