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Abortion opponents eye priorities as high court ruling looms

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 25, 2022

By Thomas Beaumont Associated Press

In the nearly two months since a conservative majority of justices on the Supreme Court indicated openness to dramatic new restrictions on abortion, money has poured into the political fundraising arm of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List.

The organization secured $20 million in pledged financial contributions, five times more than it has had at the outset of an election year over its 30-year history, according to figures shared with the Associated Press. Before the recent surge, the group had already signed off on its largest-ever political budget, $72 million, for 2022. That’s nearly $20 million more than it spent in 2020, a year that included a presidential election.

The cash pile virtually guarantees the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling, anticipated by the summer, will do little to quell what is one of the most animating issues in the United States. Abortion opponents say they will pump their newfound resources into the November elections.

Once a decision is issued, “there will be a lot of focus on all the states and the midterm elections,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List.

The Supreme Court is considering a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks. If the law is upheld, anti-abortion activists said much of the attention would shift to Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Kansas. These are states with Republican legislatures but Democrats in the governorship, each of whom is up for election in November.

If the Supreme Court overturns the Roe v. Wade ruling that women have a constitutional right to an abortion, governors in Michigan and Wisconsin would be powerless to overturn restrictions in their states already in place before the 1973 decision. But these governors would be the only obstacle to new measures passed by GOP legislatures, including outright bans on the procedure.

A Supreme Court decision is “really just the beginning of the work,” said Terry Schilling, president of the socially conservative American Principles Project. “Groups have actually been really well-connected with state leaders and investing in campaigns at the local level in these swing states, trying to win control in divided governments.”

Supporters of abortion rights, feeling a heightened sense of alarm by the prospect of a defeat at the court, are well aware of how important the governors’ races may be to their cause.

“Really truly, governors in many states are going to be our backstop,” said Jenny Lawson, vice president of organizing and electoral campaigns for Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “As the decisions come down to the states, these governors are the ones who can protect access.”

She declined to specify how much money the group was budgeting to support candidates who back abortion rights.

Some of the Democratic governors up for re-election are highlighting their commitment to protecting some form of access.

“And as long as I’m governor, that’s what I’ll do,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said during a news conference last week marking the 49th anniversary of the Roe decision.

“I’m proud to stand with so many Michiganders to protect the right to safe and legal abortion,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tweeted last week on the same day organizers of a ballot drive to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution cleared a procedural step. Over the weekend, Whitmer tweeted the right to abortion “hangs by a thread” in the high court.

For their part, abortion opponents are undeniably upbeat as the Supreme Court decision nears. Thousands gathered on a bitterly cold day in Washington last week for the March for Life, expressing joy and optimism about the prospect of Roe being overturned.

But the political fallout from such a move could be volatile for both parties. A decision drastically reducing access to abortion could energize Democrats heading into the fall campaign.

The issue is already rising in priority for Democrats, according to a December poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll found that 13% of Democrats listed abortion or reproductive rights as an issue they want the federal government to address. That’s up from less than 1% of Democrats who named it as a priority for 2021 and 3% who listed it in 2020.

Lawson predicted a court ruling restricting or ending a federal right to abortion would “drive anger and outrage and cause a realignment at the voting booth.”

There’s a risk for religious conservatives as well, who have devoted decades of work to the issue and formed an unlikely alliance with Donald Trump to achieve their goals. The former president who once expressed support for abortion rights ultimately named three justices to the Supreme Court, dramatically reshaping it to threaten Roe.

But if those justices fall short of overturning that decision or agree to some sort of compromise, conservatives could be deeply disappointed and feel less interested in participating in the midterm elections.

But for now, opponents say they’re buoyed by a sense of momentum.

“It’s different now,” Dannenfelser said.

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