By Rachel Janfaza, CNN
States across the country are rolling back access to abortion, and the fate of Roe v. Wade is up in the air — two factors that Democrats believe could elevate the issue of abortion rights this midterm cycle to a level not reached in recent memory.
The flurry of legislative action in states such as Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and Florida comes as the US Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, as campaign season kicks into high gear. At a hearing last year, the high court’s conservative majority signaled its intent to uphold the law, going against decades of precedent.
As a result, Democratic candidates across the country are prioritizing the issue of reproductive rights in their 2022 campaigns.
Planned Parenthood is planning to run its “largest ever midterm electoral program to support candidates up and down the ballot who support our reproductive rights,” according to Jenny Lawson, vice president of organizing, engagement and campaigns at Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Heather Williams, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which supports Democrats in state legislative races, said the group is hoping to “turn the outrage and frustration into votes.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, the DLCC’s GOP counterpart, told CNN the Democrats’ strategy of running on abortion rights will be futile.
“What voters are most concerned about right now is inflation, the cost of living, education and crime,” the RSLC’s Andrew Romeo said.
According to a CNN poll conducted earlier this year, most Americans oppose overturning the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established a nationwide right to an abortion, with a majority saying that if the decision were vacated, they’d want to see their own state move toward more permissive abortion laws.
CNN spoke with several Democratic candidates, running in part on the premise that the future of abortion rights is on the ballot in November, in states where either new abortion restrictions have been enacted or a Democratic governor has vetoed Republican-backed bills attempting to curtail abortion rights.
A controversial state law that bans abortions as early as six weeks went into effect in September, after the US Supreme Court and a federal appeals court opted not to rule on pending emergency requests brought by abortion providers. The law also allows private citizens to bring civil suits against anyone who assists a pregnant person seeking an abortion.
Rochelle Garza, running for state attorney general
Rochelle Garza, who faces a May primary runoff for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, was nine weeks pregnant when Texas’ six-week abortion ban went into effect.
She told CNN her candidacy for attorney general was in part inspired by the ban.
“SB 8 was atrocious,” Garza, who gave birth to her daughter last month, said of the Texas bill. “It has such a deep impact on people’s lives in a way that our (elected officials) do not understand.”
“I want something better for my daughter’s future, and I think that’s ultimately what brings it home for me and why I’m running for this office,” she said.
If she wins her primary, Garza could find herself running against a familiar opponent. As an attorney in private practice, she fought in court against Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton‘s efforts to insert himself in a case to help the Trump administration prevent her client, a detained 17-year-old immigrant, from accessing an abortion. Garza and the ACLU won that case. Paxton is seeking a third term this year and has a primary runoff of his own to get through in May.
Becca DeFelice, running for the Texas House
Becca DeFelice, the Democratic nominee for a Texas House district that includes part of San Antonio, told CNN that being the mother of a 12-year-old daughter informed her decision to run for office.
“Running for office really is something that I’m doing for her, for her future and for the future of other little girls like her in the state,” said DeFelice, a former organizer with the gun violence prevention organization Moms Demand Action.
“With choice, we know that this is a central issue to my district,” she said, citing the high number of people in her district who donate to Planned Parenthood South Texas. “We know that this is a huge issue not just for Democratic voters but for Republican women as well.”
DeFelice is challenging Republican state Rep. Steve Allison, whose campaign website notes that he is “pro-life and is endorsed by two prominent pro-life organizations.”
Jessica Cisneros, running for the US House of Representatives
Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration attorney, advanced to a May primary runoff against Rep. Henry Cuellar — a political institution in South Texas who was the only House Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify abortion rights even if the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade. (Republicans blocked the bill in the Senate.)
“He doubled down on his anti-choice stance and said abortion wasn’t health care. This is why I’m running because our community deserves someone who will always fight tooth and nail for our health care,” Cisneros told CNN in a statement.
Cueller, according to the Laredo Morning Times, said in a Zoom conference last year that he had backed “millions of dollars on health care for women” but that abortion was “not a health issue.”
“For me,” Cisneros said, “knowing how many people are being affected and have lost their right to health care, you just can’t be a bystander.”
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Thursday a GOP-led bill that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, allowing only for exceptions involving “serious risk” to the pregnant person and fatal fetal abnormality but with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Florida state Sen. Lauren Book, running for reelection
Lauren Book, the state Senate minority leader, is a survivor of child sexual abuse. She delivered an impassioned floor speech before Florida’s abortion ban legislation passed the state Senate last month, pleading with her GOP colleagues to reconsider exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
“Any attempt to limit a woman’s right to choose in my opinion is extreme. To then couple that with no exception for rape, incest or human trafficking, to me, that is the state imposing cruel and unusual punishments on victims of crimes. And that is beyond offensive as a woman, as a survivor of sexual assault and as a human being,” Book said in an interview with CNN.
She said survivors of rape or incest need time to physically and mentally heal. “They should be given the opportunity to have more time to make that choice,” she said.
Asked how the state’s abortion ban and other controversial legislation would affect her reelection campaign, Book said, “You put the loss aside, and you keep on fighting.”
“We’re recruiting people to run around the state, particularly focusing on a woman’s right to choose,” she said.
Janelle Perez, running for the Florida state Senate
Janelle Perez, who is seeking a state Senate seat in Miami, is one of the candidates Book helped encourage to run.
Perez, who is a lesbian and Cuban American, said she’s running because she wants “to see legislators that look like my community making decisions for my community.”
“I am the daughter of Cuban exiles. For me, the reason why my family fled communism and a dictatorship is for freedom and that includes reproductive freedoms, that includes my choice as a woman to make decisions for my own body,” she said.
Being a mother also influences Perez’s campaign.
“My wife and I want our girls to grow up in a Florida that affords them the same rights that we had growing up,” Perez said last month. “With the 15-week abortion ban that just passed, they are already growing up in a Florida that has less rights.”
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, running for reelection
State Rep. Anna Eskamani told CNN that when it comes to women’s health and reproductive rights, her earlier experience working at Planned Parenthood shapes her perspective.
“It really allows you to have a great deal of empathy for an issue that has become hyper-political and partisan,” she said. “I know patients who have made this decision. I have walked with women past protesters to help them feel safe. I have watched their children because they couldn’t afford child care.”
Eskamani said that while she’s “never been shy” about her past work, her focus recently has been on constituent services for Floridians who she said are more concerned with housing, rent and small business relief than cultural topics that have animated the state GOP.
But a statewide election is a different matter, Eskamani said.
“My job is making sure folks understand what’s at stake, so they realize that elections have consequences. And if you agree that this type of government overreach is inappropriate, then you need to come out and vote,” she said.
Aramis Ayala, running for state attorney general
Aramis Ayala, a civil rights advocate, public defender and former Florida state attorney, said the 15-week abortion ban is “one of the primary reasons” she decided to run for attorney general in the Sunshine State.
“While you have a governor who’s consistently saying, ‘This is a free state,’ well, in this situation, not if you’re a woman, not if you’re gay, not if you’re a Black or brown or poor person who wants to vote. Freedom only exists for a certain amount of people, and we should be looking for freedom for all Floridians,” said Ayala, who was Florida’s first Black elected state attorney.
DeSantis, for his part, has defended the new law.
“These are protections for babies that have heartbeats, that can feel pain, and this is very, very late,” he said at an event last month. “And so, I think when you’re talking about late term, you know, that’s one thing. And so, you know, I think the protections are warranted.”
As attorney general, Ayala told CNN, she would reimagine the scope of the role to focus on constitutionality over culture war priorities.
“I would ride on the Constitution, I would ride on people’s rights, I would ride on the dignity of people and make certain that anyone who was attempting to belittle, minimize or eliminate the rights of the people would not be able to pass such unconstitutional, problematic legislation without a fight,” she said.
In 2019, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who is running for reelection this year, signed into law a bill that would ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — when many women don’t yet know they’re pregnant. A federal judge blocked the ban from going into effect.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, running for state attorney general
State Sen. Jen Jordan, who is running for attorney general, fears Georgia is “going to be getting a double whammy” should Roe v. Wade be overturned and the state’s heartbeat bill be resurrected.
During debate over the bill in 2019, Jordan gave a floor speech in which she shared intimate details about her experience with multiple miscarriages.
“The issue of choice is much bigger than just about access to abortion care. It really is about women having autonomy over their bodies and having control over their lives,” she said.
Jordan said that while speaking to constituents, she’s heard “lots of personal stories of loss.”
“Almost no matter where I go, I get pulled aside by somebody,” she said, adding that because of her floor speech, “women felt like someone was kind of voicing their story in a way and really could understand and relate to the pain or the difficulties.”
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law last year a 24-week abortion ban that also mandates ultrasounds prior to the procedure. The law went into effect in January.
State Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, running for reelection
State Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka was 24 weeks pregnant as the Granite State legislature debated the 24-week abortion ban legislation.
Moved by how such a ban could potentially affect her, she gave a floor speech, urging her colleagues to oppose the bill.
“My rights actually were being changed by the legislation we were debating,” Perkins Kwoka said. “I didn’t think my colleagues thought it would really apply to a woman like me who was sitting in the chamber.”
“It particularly felt like, today, I’m a mom, and I’m a woman, and I’m capable of all of these complex decisions. What’s different after week 24? Why tomorrow, you know? Am I capable of different decisions?” she said. “Those were some of the thoughts that I had as we had this floor debate.”
Perkins Kwoka, who is running for reelection this year, said abortion rights have “certainly been something that the constituents are paying attention to.”
“I have had women stop me in parking lots, talk to me in line when I’m getting coffee, send me emails, send me text messages that are like, ‘Thank you for fighting for us on choice.’ Women in my mom’s generation are saying I cannot believe that you still need to be fighting this fight on our behalf, but thank you for doing it,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, the Republican-led state legislature has passed anti-abortion bills, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has used his veto pen to block the legislation.
Abortion rights advocates worry that with Wolf term-limited this year, those restrictive abortion bills could become law without a Democrat in the governor’s mansion.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, running for governor
Josh Shapiro, the lone Democrat running to succeed Wolf, has been outspoken against the anti-abortion laws in Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina. As state attorney general, he joined legal challenges to these laws, arguing they were unconstitutional. Shapiro also previously challenged a Trump administration gag rule that barred funding for abortion clinics.
“Throughout my career, I have always fought to protect reproductive rights — and as Governor, I will stand up to any attempt to further restrict the right to choose in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro told CNN in a statement.
“Republicans are leading a concerted effort to ban abortion across the country, and who we elect as our next governor will quite literally decide whether women’s reproductive freedoms continue to exist in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Alexandra Hunt, running for the US House of Representatives
Alexandra Hunt, a 29-year-old public health researcher challenging Rep. Dwight Evans in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s 3rd Congressional District, has spoken of her personal experience with abortion.
“I think living the experience is really important,” Hunt, who had an abortion when she was 18 years old, told CNN.
At the time of her abortion, Hunt said she was a freshman in college and “not in any sort of financial position to raise a child.”
“I was working in restaurants, going to school and I was working in strip clubs. And I could not bring a child into this world and care for that child properly,” she said, describing her decision as “motivated by love for the future children I do want to bring into this world.”
Hunt believes Congress must codify Roe v. Wade into law.
“There is a very distinct disconnect between policymakers and the people that have to abide by the policy,” she said. “I would help to bridge that gap.”
Michigan is another state where a Democratic governor — in this case, Gretchen Whitmer — has vetoed anti-abortion bills passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature.
It is also one of nine states with an abortion ban on the books — Michigan’s dates to 1931 — that could potentially be enforced if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, running for reelection
Whitmer filed a lawsuit on April 7 against several county prosecutors in Michigan and asked the state’s Supreme Court to issue a decision on the constitutionality of abortion.
The lawsuit is the most recent example of Whitmer’s efforts to defend abortion access in her state.
“In the coming weeks, we will learn if the US Supreme Court decides to overturn Roe v. Wade. … If Roe is overturned, abortion could become illegal in Michigan in nearly any circumstance — including in cases of rape and incest — and deprive Michigan women of the ability to make critical health care decisions for themselves,” Whitmer said in a statement. “This is no longer theoretical: it is reality.”
Whitmer previously vetoed legislation that would provide more than $16 million in anti-abortion funding in Michigan and has asked the state legislature to pass a bill repealing the state’s 1931 abortion ban, which she described in an interview with CNN+’s Kasie Hunt as “one of the most extreme laws on the books.”
State Attorney General Dana Nessel, running for reelection
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has said that she would not use resources of her office to defend Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban, even if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Earlier this month, Nessel, for the first time, described having her own abortion in 2002 while pregnant with triplets. At the time, Nessel had to terminate one of the pregnancies in order to carry the other two to term.
“I’ve made it very clear that if you are a medically qualified person to provide an abortion, I don’t intend to use the resources of my department to prosecute women or their doctors for what is a private and personal decision, and a medical decision, made between those parties,” she told CNN last month.
“I don’t see how we’re protecting them by subjecting them to great bodily harm or death because you have physicians that are so afraid of preforming what’s been a routine procedure,” she said.
Nessel said she urges women who fear a potential loss of abortion rights to exercise their right to vote.
“What I tell women is like, ‘If you’re scared, good. You should be scared. But you should be activated, and you should get involved, support candidates who are pro-choice and who believe in the right to privacy,’” she said. “All is not lost.”
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