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7 governor’s races that could hinge on abortion politics

The Supreme Court’s decision could help some Democrats in tight midterm contests.

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

The US Supreme Court’s 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.

Though things could change by November, abortion rights currently seem to be galvanizing voters nationally. In a late June Politico/Morning Consult poll, for instance, 43 percent of voters said it was very important to vote for a candidate who “supports abortion access.” A CBS News/YouGov poll from late June found half of Democrats said the Supreme Court’s decision has made them more likely to vote, compared to 20 percent of Republicans.

Abortion could have an even bigger influence in races in battleground states, where gubernatorial candidates are presenting a fairly binary choice between further restricting abortion rights and protecting access.

Here are the governor’s races to watch:

Georgia (rated a toss-up by the Cook Political Report)

Incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s ultra-restrictionist stance on abortion might reflect the views of his base but may not be in sync with most of his constituency: An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed over two-thirds of Georgia voters opposed overturning Roe, including nearly half of Republican voters. Other surveys conducted over the past decade have found that a narrow plurality of voters in the state supported abortion being mostly legal. And in what is shaping up to be a close race — Democrat Stacey Abrams is trailing Kemp by about 5 points in RealClearPolitics’ polling average — that could be a factor that tips the scales.

In 2019, Kemp signed a law that he then called the “toughest abortion bill in the country.” It 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.” It would allow prosecutors to file criminal charges against people who get abortions and target people who miscarry. A federal court blocked the law from going into effect, but that injunction could be lifted now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe, potentially prompting backlash from Georgia voters.

Abrams 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 last month. “And so it is very, very dangerous for women in Georgia right now.”

For now, the Kemp campaign has said that the governor is focused on ensuring that the 2019 ban survives in court, though he’s been under pressure from anti-abortion activists to call a special session of the state legislature to vote on a constitutional amendment that would extend the right to life of all citizens to begin at fertilization.

There haven’t been many polls taken since Roe was struck down, making it difficult to ascertain whether the Supreme Court decision has had any effect on the race. In a Data for Progress poll from the first week of July, Abrams’s and Kemp’s numbers were consistent with past polling. A June Quinnipiac poll that concluded just after the Supreme Court’s decision came down, however, showed Abrams and Kemp as tied, with Abrams claiming more than half of independent voters — a key demographic that she will need to win.

Pennsylvania (rated lean 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 nominee 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 nominee who was trailing Shapiro by just 4 points in a June USA Today pollsponsored 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 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. But while abortion is a top issue for voters in the state, it still ranks behind inflation, gun policy, and honesty in government, according to a June AARP survey conducted before the Supreme Court’s decision.

Michigan (rated a toss-up)

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. She has acknowledged that the GOP-controlled state legislature isn’t likely to overturn it, so she asked the Michigan Supreme Court in April to strike it down and affirm that the state constitution includes the right to access an abortion. Pending a lawsuit, the Michigan Court of Claims also temporarily blocked the law from going into effect in May.

The majority of Michigan voters appear to be behind Whitmer on abortion: According to a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll conducted earlier this month, about 58 percent opposed the Supreme Court’s decision. That same poll found it’s also a big motivating issue in Michigan, with 86 percent of respondents saying a candidate’s position on Roe would be important in deciding their vote. 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.

A crowded Republican field jockeying to challenge Whitmer in the August 2 primary has largely supported abortion bans. Based on a RealClearPolitics polling average, it would appear Whitmer has a solid advantage over her GOP rivals. It’s unclear how much of an edge her defense of abortion rights will give her, since voters have expressed more concern about fixing the roads, health care, jobs, and the economy. But Democrats hope it will be enough for Whitmer to win what’s expected to be a close race.

Kansas (rated a toss-up)

Kansas voters are considering an amendment to their state constitution in their August 2 primaries that says there is no right to an abortion or to state funding of abortions. It would also codify 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.

If that amendment is approved, Republicans in the state legislature are gearing up to pass new restrictions on abortion when they reconvene in January. Whether those bills actually become law rests on the outcome of the governor’s race, where Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who has opposed the amendment, is running for reelection.

The Republican frontrunner, Derek Schmidt, the current state attorney general, 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. He led Kelly by 4 points in a Remington poll last September, but those numbers have likely shifted in the months since.

Election officials are predicting an increase in voter turnout, saying they expect to see about 50 percent of voters — compared to the 34 percent who voted in the last primary election — as a result of the amendment. But it’s not clear which side might benefit: According to a study by Pew Research, Kansas voters are evenly split on whether abortion should be legal. Other surveys have found similar results.

Wisconsin (rated a toss-up)

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who is up for reelection, has called for a special legislative session to repeal the state’s 173-year-old abortion ban, which 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 recently 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.

Republican gubernatorial candidates running in the August 9 primary have said that they support the ban. But most Wisconsinites seem to oppose it: 58 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a Marquette Law poll conducted just before the Supreme Court’s ruling. 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.

Evers has an early lead over any of the Republican candidates, according to the latest Marquette poll, but that could change after the primary, at which point the state GOP is expected to put all its resources behind a single candidate.

Nevada (rated a toss-up)

Some 62 percent of Nevada voters believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, according to an October Predictive Insights poll, and for now, it’s protected until 24 weeks of pregnancy under a 1990 referendum. A Pew survey from 2014 found similar results.

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 was leading Lombardo by 9 points in an April Nevada Independent poll, has gone on the offensive against Lombardo for his comments at a primary debate last month where he said he would take restrictions on contraception and waiting periods for abortions under consideration. 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.”

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 bevy of Republicans vying to replace him — including Trump-endorsed Kari Lake and Karrin Taylor Robson, who are currently in a dead heat ahead of the August 2 primary — are avidly anti-abortion. Neither of the frontrunners, however, has opined on the pre-Roe ban, only voicing support for the recent 15-week ban. The clear Democratic frontrunner, current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, has called for the repeal of both bans.

Democrats have leaned into the issue since the Supreme Court’s decision, and that could play to their advantage in the purple state, where the vast majority of voters appear to support abortion rights. A Predictive Insights poll conducted in May found that 87 percent of Arizonans wanted abortion to remain legal in all or some cases, and three in five said their vote would be very or somewhat impacted by a candidate’s stance on abortion. Another February poll by Change Research found that 60 percent of respondents were more likely to vote for a candidate that would repeal Nevada’s pre-Roe ban.

Those polls were conducted before the Supreme Court’s decision, and it’s possible those numbers have since shifted. But even if those numbers stay the same, it’s a good sign for Democrats.