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7 governor’s races that are abortion battlegrounds

The Supreme Court’s abortion decision could help some Democrats in tight midterm contests. But will it be enough?

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor, is leaning into pro-abortion rights rhetoric as she tries to unseat incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp.
Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The US Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has raised the stakes of competitive governor’s races in 2022, with Democratic and Republican candidates advocating for competing visions of abortion access.

In some states, Democrats hope to wield veto power over legislation from Republican-controlled state legislatures that want to curb abortion rights. Elsewhere, Republicans want to use governorships to defend existing state laws restricting abortion and are charting a path to further curb access to the procedure.

As has been the case in many national races, GOP gubernatorial candidates have generally been less vocal about their stance on abortion than their Democratic opponents. But Democrats and their allies have been working to put abortion front and center in races for governorships, which represent a key bulwark against further state restrictions on abortion.

Whether that’s an effective strategy for Democrats remains to be seen. Surveys have shown that abortion rights are a major galvanizing force among young women, many of whom see it as the most important issue influencing their vote. But likely voters overall, both Democrat and Republican, have consistently ranked abortion well below their other top motivating issues, including the economy and inflation.

In battleground states, gubernatorial candidates are presenting a fairly binary choice between further restricting abortion rights and protecting access. But it’s not clear whether there’s enough enthusiasm around the issue to push Democratic candidates over the edge.

Here are the governor’s races to watch:

Georgia (rated lean Republican by the Cook Political Report)

Incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law in 2019 that he then called the “toughest abortion bill in the country.” While that may have played well with his base, it’s not in sync with most of his constituency: an October University of Georgia poll found that 62 percent of likely voters opposed the ban. Democrat Stacey Abrams is hoping that opposition can help her close a gap of just over 6 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, between her and Kemp before Election Day.

The 2019 law bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant, with exceptions in cases involving rape and incest when a police report has been filed, where the pregnant person’s life is at risk, and where the fetus has a “profound and irremediable congenital or chromosomal anomaly that is incompatible with sustaining life after birth.” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has argued that it would allow prosecutors to file criminal charges against people who get abortions and target people who miscarry. The ban could be blocked by the courts, where a legal battle over its constitutionality is ongoing.

Abrams, who supports legal abortion up to fetal viability, has vowed to work to repeal the law should she become governor, and has argued that Kemp could pose additional threats to women. “We know that Brian Kemp has already signaled his, at least an ambiguity, about how he feels about birth control and the laws that govern birth control access,” she said in June. “And so it is very, very dangerous for women in Georgia right now.”

It’s not clear whether Kemp would support even harsher restrictions on abortion if reelected. In a debate Sunday, he said he had no “desire to go move the needle any further” on abortion restrictions, but would consider any law passed by state lawmakers “when the time comes.”

Pennsylvania (rated likely Democrat)

Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is term-limited, has for years been a last line of defense against the GOP-controlled state legislature’s efforts to enact abortion bans. Most recently, the legislature has advanced a constitutional amendment that states there is no right to an abortion or state funding for abortions. Democrats are hoping they can replace Wolf with their candidate Josh Shapiro, the current state attorney general. Otherwise, the future of abortion rights in the state looks grim.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano — the far-right Republican candidate who is trailing Shapiro by nearly 10 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average — sponsored a bill to ban abortion at about six weeks, has called the pro-abortion rights slogan “my body, my choice” “ridiculous nonsense,” and shared a cartoon that characterized the original Roe v. Wade decision as “so much” worse than the Holocaust. He also said during a primary debate that banning abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, was his “number one issue” and that he supports criminal penalties for doctors who provide abortions.

Democrats are counting on Pennsylvania voters being turned off by Mastriano’s extreme positions on abortion, as well as his efforts to amplify former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election lies. A New York Times analysis of several polls conducted over the past decade found that, on average, 53 percent of Pennsylvania voters believed that abortion should be mostly legal. And voters have ranked abortion as the second-most important electoral issue, after the economy and inflation, according to an October USA Today Network/Suffolk University poll.

Michigan (rated lean Democrat)

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has for months been fighting Michigan’s pre-Roe abortion ban, which was first enacted in 1931 and has no exceptions for rape or incest. Currently, abortion is legal in Michigan up to fetal viability, which is generally around 24 to 26 weeks of pregnancy. However, Republicans in the state legislature have repeatedly voted against repealing the 1931 abortion ban and have gone to court to defend it. The ban is currently blocked from going into effect while the legal battle plays out. Whitmer herself has also separately asked the Michigan Supreme Court to strike it down and affirm that the state constitution includes the right to access an abortion.

The majority of Michigan voters appear to be behind Whitmer on abortion: Between 52 and 64 percent of likely voters said they would vote for a ballot measure codifying abortion rights in the state constitution in polls conducted since September. Other polls dating back to 2018 (conducted by pollster Bernie Porn and EPIC-MRA) have shown that the majority of Michiganders consistently support abortion rights.

Whitmer is favored slightly in a tough fight for reelection against Trump-endorsed Republican Tudor Dixon, who said in a debate last month that she is “pro-life with exceptions for the life of the mother,” but did not say whether she would allow prosecutions in cases of rape or incest.

Dixon also argued during the debate that she wouldn’t have much power over abortion policy in Michigan if elected, especially if the abortion rights ballot initiative is approved by voters. She has said that she would respect the results of that ballot initiative, but Whitmer contested that claim during the debate.

According to FiveThirtyEight, Whitmer is polling just 5 percentage points ahead of Dixon on average, and several October polls have shown her ahead by even smaller margins.

Whitmer’s defense of abortion rights could give her something of an edge, since voters ranked it as their second-most important issue after the economy in an October Emerson poll.

Kansas (rated a toss-up)

Incumbent Gov. Laura Kelly is one of four Democratic governors in states that voted for Trump in 2020, and she’s sought to make the race about kitchen table issues, rather than abortion. FiveThirtyEight slightly favors her to win over her Republican challenger, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, with a October Emerson College poll showing her up by 5 points.

Kelly, who is pro-choice, has rarely spoken about abortion on the campaign trail, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a big issue. It’s impossible to ignore that roughly 47 percent of eligible voters — more than 900,000 Kansans — cast ballots on the issue during their August 2 primaries, and soundly rejected an anti-abortion ballot initiative, 59 percent to 41 percent, with turnout well exceeding expectations.

The measure would have “affirm[ed] there is no Kansas constitutional right to abortion or to require the government funding of abortion.” It would have also codified the state legislature’s power to pass laws that regulate abortion, including in cases of rape or incest, or when necessary to save the life of the mother.

The failure of the amendment might have energized Democrats in the state against Schmidt, who has said that he would “prefer a future with less abortion, not more,” and wants to preserve existing limits on late-term abortions, requirements that parents be notified when minors seek abortion, and prohibitions on using taxpayer funds to pay for abortion.

But Kelly will also need independents and some disaffected Republicans to win.

Wisconsin (rated a toss-up)

Incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — who is locked in a dead heat with his Republican opponent, Tim Michels — has called for a special legislative session to repeal existing abortion restrictions in the state. A 173-year-old abortion ban makes no exceptions for cases involving rape or incest but does allow the procedure when the pregnant person’s life is in danger. Under that ban, doctors who perform an abortion could face up to six years in prison and $10,000 in fines, though Evers has offered clemency to those doctors.

That call for a special session was rejected by the GOP-controlled state legislature, which has repeatedly sent anti-abortion bills to Evers’s desk. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has said he will not enforce the ban, though he can’t stop local law enforcement officials from doing so.

Should Evers lose reelection, it would mean that Republicans, who are expected to maintain control of the legislature, might actually be able to fully enforce the ban. But most Wisconsinites seem to oppose the idea: 60 percent oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, according to an October Marquette University Law School poll. Previous Marquette polls conducted over the past decade have consistently shown that about 6 in 10 Wisconsinites support abortion rights in all or most cases.

Nevada (rated a toss-up)

Some 90 percent of Nevada voters believe abortion should be legal under some or all circumstances, according to an October 2021 Predictive Insights poll, and for now, it’s protected until 24 weeks of pregnancy under a 1990 referendum. A Pew survey from 2014 also found majority support for legal abortion.

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who is running for reelection, has vowed to make sure abortion stays legal, especially given that abortion providers are expecting an influx of patients from neighboring states including Arizona, Idaho, and Utah that have banned abortion or are poised to do so. His GOP opponent, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, hasn’t embraced any specific restrictions on abortion but has said he would be a “pro-life governor” and that he believes most Nevadans want fewer abortions.

Sisolak, who is neck-and-neck with Lombardo in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, has gone on the offensive against Lombardo for saying that he would consider restrictions on contraception and waiting periods for abortions. Lombardo’s campaign has sought to walk back those comments, saying that he “never said he would limit contraceptive access, nor does he have any intention to.”

That could make a difference in a race where nearly 18 percent of likely voters rated abortion as their top issue, according to a September Emerson College poll.

Arizona (rated a toss-up)

Arizona’s GOP-controlled state legislature passed legislation earlier this year that banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. But the state also has a 121-year-old total abortion ban on the books, which only has an exception for when the life of the pregnant person is in jeopardy. It went into effect immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited, and the Republican running to succeed him, Trump-endorsed Kari Lake, is avidly anti-abortion. She has supported the 15-week ban and the pre-Roe ban, which she has called “a great law that’s already on the books.” She has also called abortion “the ultimate sin,” said abortion pills should be illegal, and said she would support banning abortion around six weeks of pregnancy.

The Democratic nominee, current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, has called for the repeal of both the pre-Roe ban and the 15-week ban.

The vast majority of Arizona voters appear to support abortion rights. A September OH Predictive insights poll found that 9 in 10 voters agree that abortion should be legal in at least some cases, and 64 percent see it as an issue that would impact their decision on who they’ll vote for.

Update, November 2, 2:15 pm: This article was originally published July 14, and has been updated for the midterms with new information on the candidates and more recent polling.

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