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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

Democrats had a simple message on abortion in Arizona. Then things got complicated.

Dave is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Sign up for Americana to get his coverage of the national political scene in your inbox twice a week.

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Title iconThe News
Canvassers with Planned Parenthood's "Take Control" project knock doors in Glendale, Ariz. October 28, 2022. David Weigel.

PHOENIX – On the day before Halloween, Julie Gunnigle canvassed Elm Street, still wearing the red contact lenses from her vampire costume, worried that voters continue to be  “utterly confused” about whether abortion remained legal in Arizona.

Since the summer, the state’s 158-year old abortion ban had bounced around courtrooms, enforced and unenforced. Last week, the Republican attorney general announced that the ban wouldn’t be in place until the election was over. And Gunnigle, a candidate for Maricopa County Attorney, was fending off attacks on her own support for abortion rights.

“They say anyone who’s got a Planned Parenthood endorsement has agreed to ‘defund the police,’” said Gunnigle, dropping her pink and blue campaign literature at the doors. “They say I’ve been involved in selling fetal body parts. That one was particularly fun.”

Five months after the end of Roe v. Wade, the role of abortion rights in Democratic campaigns has shifted. Republicans have walked back some unpopular statements on abortion bans; Democrats have seen better returns on Medicare messaging than ads about choice. As abortion groups waged a $150 million voter mobilization campaign, conservatives fixated on other stances they’d taken – the 2020 “defund” endorsement, the embrace of gender identity issues  – to brand them as extremists.

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“People that are not inside of a total activist bubble don't assume that men can have babies,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. “Honestly, how many focus groups do you need to get through to figure out that this isn’t a winning issue?”

In Arizona, abortion rights groups thought they had a simple story to tell. The state’s territorial-era abortion law, unenforceable while Roe was in effect, made it a crime to obtain or provide an abortion. After Roe, Planned Parenthood halted services – sometimes stopping patients in the waiting room and telling them how to travel to other states – until a court allowed them to resume. In races for governor and attorney general, Democrats promised  legal abortion if they won, and warned of rough 19th century justice if they didn’t.

“What happened here was just so much confusion and chaos for patients who needed care,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the Democratic nominee for governor, in an interview this weekend. “It wasn’t just those who had appointments on the books to have abortions, but people experiencing complications of pregnancy, people needing life saving medication that has nothing to do with abortion, but it might be used in abortion.”

In July, voters were fixated on abortion, and Democrats moved ahead in their polling, as Planned Parenthood launched a $50 million “Take Control” campaign to turn out persuadable abortion rights voters. Republicans downplayed the issue, with U.S. Senate nominee Blake Masters even removing support for a federal “personhood” bill, which would ban most abortions, from his website.

That was the first stage of a fightback. Masters and the rest of the GOP ticket hit Democrats for not specifying any limitations on abortion, and supporting a Women’s Health Protection Act that would scrap limits in place in many states. Polling consistently found most voters in favor of legal abortion with limits – 52 percent of them, in a New York Times/Siena poll conducted last week. So Republicans reintroduced themselves as the party that favored popular abortion restrictions, running against Democrats who didn’t want to endorse any of them.

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“They’re the extremists,” said Masters.

Republicans also started talking about the least popular positions Planned Parenthood and its Arizona affiliate had taken, unrelated to abortion. In Arizona, that started with “defunding the police.” The national Planned Parenthood Action Fund endorsed the idea in June 2020, explaining that it meant “investing in community-based solutions, education, and health care,” and teeing up countless GOP attacks anyway.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona went further. In July 2020, its board began requiring any candidate who wanted its endorsement to “return any campaign contributions from police unions and other policing organizations.”

There was a caveat — candidates could accept police-tied donations if they re-gifted them to a PPAA-approved group. But when GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake went after Planned Parenthood in a TV ad, it was over the “defund” statement, accusing Hobbs of being backed “by radical groups that want to defund our police.”

Brittany Fonteno, who became PPAA’s president and CEO a year ago, said in an interview that there’d been “confusion” about the group’s police position. As their campaigners knocked doors across the state to talk about the Republican threat to legal abortion, there’d been a “concerted effort” to paint Democrats and allies as anti-cop. But the position itself wasn’t going to change.

“There is a real intersection between bodily autonomy and police brutality,” Fonteno explained. “With the majority of our patients being people of color from communities that historically and currently face higher rates of police violence, it was a step that the board of directors felt they could take to start to address some of that.”

Still, Democrats running to prevent an Arizona abortion ban had distanced themselves from the defund talk, bringing the issue back to what law enforcement would actually do if Republicans took power and enforced bans. Gunnigle has tried to do that in her race. Kris Mayes, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, has hit the same theme in hers – while Abe Hamadeh, the GOP nominee, demanded she renounce Planned Parenthood over the “defund” stance.

“I'm pro-law enforcement and I’m pro-reproductive rights,” said Mayes. “You can be both, and I am both. In fact, if anything, I've called for additional resources to go to our state's law enforcement.”

undefined headshotDavid 's view

Abortion rights groups shifted left during Donald Trump’s presidency, in step with most of the progressive movement. The phrase “safe, legal, and rare” was ditched to make room for less apologetic language; language about “women” getting abortions was supplanted by language about “people” getting them, to incorporate trans and nonbinary people who are able to give birth. In our 30-minute interview, Fonteno did not use the word “women” once. Planned Parenthood’s abortion advocacy is popular in Arizona, but turn on a TV right now and you’ll see ads from the new Citizens for Sanity PAC about gender identity and ads from GOP candidates about “defunding” – all of it muddying up an issue Democrats want to be clear and simple.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

The Hobbs campaign has centered abortion in its messaging, betting that the the ongoing threat of a ban remains real to voters who might otherwise want to vote Republican to send a message on other issues. Democrats also have real-life examples to point to of voters turning out in large numbers over the summer after Roe was overturned, both in special elections and to block a Kansas amendment that would have enabled abortion bans. The last such race was over two months ago, leaving polls alone to drive the narrative since then.

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