Abortion rights activists plan to go on offense in 2014

In this July 9, 2013 file photo, opponents and supporters of an abortion bill hold signs near a news conference outside the Texas Capitol, in Austin, Texas. AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

For years, the anti-abortion rights movement has focused on advancing their cause at the state level, electing state officials supportive of their views on reproductive rights and passing state and local laws.

That strategy has clearly paid off: Currently, there are just seven states with governments dominated by pro-abortion rights lawmakers. By contrast, there are 21 where both the governor and a majority of the state legislature are opposed to abortion rights, according to an assessment from the group NARAL Pro-Choice America. In 2013, there were 53 measures passed at the state level that NARAL characterizes as “anti-choice,” and just 16 it calls pro-choice.

The conservative movement’s bold strategy has tested the bounds of the Supreme Court’s past rulings on abortion restrictions, and it has left abortion rights supporters playing defense. But this midterm election year, NARAL president Ilyse Hogue told reporters Tuesday, her organization plans on taking a page from its opponents’ playbook -- it is shifting its focus from federal elections to gubernatorial and state legislative races.

NARAL plans to “go deep, go early and show that even in red states this is still a crossover issue,” Hogue said.

There are 36 gubernatorial races this year, but NARAL may only get involved in three to five high-impact states. It plans to target “races that will send signals nationally,” Hogue said.

As an example of a potential target, she pointed to the Kansas gubernatorial race between incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and a little-known Democratic candidate, Kansas Rep. Paul Davis. Brownback has signed into law several anti-abortion measures, and Hogue contends he’s paying the price for it: In spite of Brownback’s higher name recognition and Kansas’ conservative politics, Davis has a slight lead in at least one poll and has managed to raise more than $1 million in less than five months.

In addition to Brownback, there are 18 other governors running for re-election this year who oppose abortion rights and 10 who support abortion rights. The remaining seven gubernatorial races are open.

Bringing down the advantage that anti-abortion rights activists have at the state level will take time, Hogue said. “We recognize reversing this trend is a long game.”

NARAL political director Erika West said 2014 will be about “building firewalls” against more anti-abortion bills. “If we want to stop the attacks, we must hold accountable the people responsible for them,” she said. That means the organization will focus on educating voters about the promises incumbents made in past elections and whether they’ve fulfilled those promises.

Anti-choice lawmakers, she said, have succeeded thus far by “obfuscating” their record on reproductive rights issues. She pointed to the record of Gov. Pat McCrory, R-N.C., who promised in a gubernatorial debate that he wouldn’t sign any bills to restrict abortion rights but nevertheless signed a bill with a package of measures limiting abortion rights.

West and other NARAL leaders also pointed out how the Texas state legislature managed to enrage -- and mobilize -- abortion rights supporters after scheduling multiple special sessions just to pass abortion restrictions.

Voters “wouldn’t stand for it if they saw it coming,” West said.

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