(CNN) — Key Democrats hoping to keep abortion access a central part of the 2024 campaign are looking to the 2004 playbook of an old Republican nemesis: Karl Rove.
Rove was the architect of ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage placed in swing states to boost turnout for George W. Bush. Now Democrats are pushing ballot measures and an array of other moves to try to capitalize on a backlash to last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which they say was instrumental in many of their wins in last year’s midterms.
“We should put the right to choose on every ballot across the country in 2024 — not just with the candidates we choose, but with referendum efforts to enshrine reproductive rights in states where right-wing politicians are stripping those rights away,” Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker told CNN.
With President Joe Biden expected to run for reelection and Democrats forecasting tough races for key Senate and House seats, several Democratic operatives say next year is the perfect moment to turn Rove’s wedge-issue strategy on its head and get swing voters excited about abortion rights — the same way an abortion rights ballot proposition in Michigan helped power a massive blue wave in the state last year.
The frustration with threats to abortion access hasn’t faded, Democrats — from Biden’s close advisers to organizers across the country — agree. Their proof is Tuesday’s blowout win by Democrats’ preferred candidate in Wisconsin. The state Supreme Court race came with high stakes for abortion access given the court is expected to decide the fate of the state’s 1849 ban, which had been dormant for decades but snapped back into place with last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“In 2024, voters will be deciding whether to elect people who want a national abortion ban,” said Ben Wikler, the Democratic Party chair in the state. “Republicans nationally will feel the fury that Wisconsin feels now.”
Even some conservatives are raising the alarm. After the Wisconsin election, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, referring to last summer’s US Supreme Court decision, tweeted: “Pro-lifers: WE WON. Abortion is not a ‘constitutional right’ anymore!” She suggested that new abortion restrictions are backfiring on the GOP. “Please stop pushing strict limits on abortion, or there will be no Republicans left,” she added.
Rove didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Democrats invoking him in their political strategy.
But Democrats are counting on new restrictions being pushed by Republicans in Congress and in many state legislatures — including a ban on abortions after six weeks that could soon head to the desk of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s in final deliberations about launching a presidential campaign -- to keep stoking fresh backlash. That will only be accentuated, they argue, if a Texas judge’s ruling in a pending case leads to a restriction in access to a common abortion medication, even in states where the procedure is legal.
Some in the party continue to push for economic issues to be their preeminent message. But abortion rights advocates and top Democratic operatives say they’ll look to tie every Republican candidate — for president all the way down the ticket — to the hardest-line abortion restrictions, which polls show are broadly unpopular.
And they’ll do it, they say, by tapping into what they think is a more widely resonant argument about bringing people together to push back on government overreach and stripping them of their rights.
“It’s time for Democrats to take this fight directly to the people,” Pritzker said. “Let’s make the choice for voters in 2024 crystal clear.”
The ballot propositions are part of a patchwork, ad hoc strategy that collections of activists, advocates and operatives are sorting out on the state and local levels, as they wait for Biden to make a final decision about running and setting the tone for a national campaign. More than 20 lieutenant governors, for example, led by Connecticut’s Susan Bysiewicz, have started a coalition to share tactics and information as they push to protect abortion rights in their states. And groups of Democratic state attorneys general have come together in joint lawsuits aimed at trying to undermine a possible decision from the Texas judge against the abortion pill.
In New York — where six Republicans who represent congressional districts where Biden won in 2020 are top targets for the party nationally — the Democratic-dominated state legislature has already put a measure on the ballot for next year. Maryland legislators moved to add their own proposal to the 2024 ballot at the end of March.
“There’s no doubt it will energize voters to fight for their fundamental rights,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told CNN.
Hochul, a Democrat who convened a special session of the state legislature last year after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, said that even though abortion rights didn’t appear to move many voters in her very blue state last year, there’s still a need for abortion rights politicians to push for more.
“We’ve all seen the terrifying ways other states are trying to roll back reproductive rights, and we know it’s up to us to fight back,” said Hochul.
There’s a burgeoning effort by some abortion rights activists in Florida for a potential ballot proposition there, and the process is already well underway in the key battleground state of Arizona, as well as in Colorado. Efforts are also underway in Montana, people advising them tell CNN, and in Nevada -- each of which will have a Senate race that could determine the majority.
Activists are also expecting Republicans to try get an abortion proposition on the ballot in Iowa, where state legislators are advancing a proposition that would impose new restrictions.
Asked if Pritzker would be funding ballot proposition efforts in other states, a spokesperson for the billionaire governor pointed to his past financial support of the issue, including in last year’s ballot initiative in Michigan and in support of the Democrats’ preferred Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate.
Nationally, Biden advisers say that Vice President Kamala Harris will take the lead on the abortion issue — as she did in the 2022 midterms — in the plans for a reelection campaign while the president would also push to codify Roe v. Wade as part of his own pitch.
Harris is planning to expand her national tour on reproductive rights, like her trip to Iowa in March, which was specifically geared to call attention to the Republican presidential candidates who’ve been landing in the state.
Harris aides say she has been keeping tabs on the medication abortion case out of Texas, warning fellow Democrats about the consequences for other medications if this Food and Drug Administration approval is reversed, but has also been reaching out behind the scenes -- checking with legislators who’ve protected abortion rights in their states and with Virginia state Sen. Aaron Rouse about how talking about abortion rights helped him win a January special election that flipped a seat.
“People around our country are concerned, afraid, confused, desperate, in many ways feeling alone,” Harris said recently as she met with Iowa state legislators who support abortion rights in Des Moines.
Democratic leaders urge focus on individual rights rather than partisanship
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat who survived a tight reelection last year in which she spoke often about abortion rights, argues that the way to appeal to Republican voters and independents is to talk about how the GOP is being taken over by extremists.
“It is such a personal, emotional, important issue for people that my colleagues on the far right do not understand why it will continue to resonate,” Cortez Masto said.
That’s in line with Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, the two national nonpartisan groups at the forefront of organizing the ballot proposition campaigns in 2022 and as well as those taking shape for 2024. (The ACLU just spent $900,000 on its own radio ads in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race.)
There’s a natural fit, operatives at both groups say, in talking about taking back power from governments that took rights away.
“We continue to see a lot of promise in appealing directly to voters who are so with us on this on the issue,” said ACLU senior political strategist Carolyn Ehrlich, arguing the ballot propositions from last year are “a roadmap for protecting rights in states where the legislature is a roadblock to progress.”
Ballot propositions that would have further restricted abortion were defeated last year in deep-red states like Kansas and Kentucky -- major victories for abortion rights advocates. And after Republicans fell short of their hopes of a “red wave” in the midterms, those advocates and aligned operatives argue that the GOP has largely been pushed into a corner.
“I don’t think we’re going to have to nuance anything to voters. What we’re going to have to do is to communicate to voters where the parties stand,” said EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler.
New attacks on reproductive rights will only further enrage and mobilize their voters, said NARAL President Mini Timmaraju.
“Every single candidate for public office next year will have no choice but to go on the record with their position, and we’ll be there to hold them accountable or lift them up,” Timmaraju said.
Republicans navigate demands from their base
Talking about abortion has already proven complicated for the emerging Republican presidential field. Former President Donald Trump, whose three Supreme Court nominees helped overturn Roe v. Wade, lashed out after the midterms to say “‘the abortion issue’” was “poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on no exceptions.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence has remained an advocate of a national abortion ban. Other prospective candidates have stopped short of that while making announcements of their own: Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has pushed a 15-week ban in his state — except in the case of rape, incest and the health of the mother — as he eyes a potential moderate lane in the race. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has announced her candidacy, says she wouldn’t support a full federal ban but has expressed openness to the 15-week federal ban for most abortions introduced last year by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, though she hasn’t taken a firm position.
Fellow South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, asked on Fox News earlier this month about the bill in his state that would allow the death penalty to be imposed on women who receive abortions, said it was “a terrible idea” and then quickly shut down the conversation. A spokesperson for Scott, whose travel schedule in recent months has looked like that of a likely presidential candidate, did not respond to a CNN interview request to elaborate.
Similar bills are being introduced by Republican legislators in several other states, including ones that would reclassify abortion as murder and ones that could apply “wrongful death” to embryos frozen as part of IVF fertility treatments.
Anti-abortion activists aren’t leaving much room for compromise. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser declared in a call with reporters in January that any Republican who doesn’t back a federal abortion ban or restrictions that moved toward one has “disqualified him or herself as a presidential candidate in our eyes.”
That applies for candidates for other offices too, Dannenfelser warned. And, she said, she wants candidates speaking loudly and clearly about more restrictions they’d support rather than trying to avoid the issue. To do otherwise, she said, would be an “ostrich strategy.”
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