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"The party has just moved beyond anything I recognize": Abortion rights key in Arizona governor's race

Gubernatorial races heat up as midterms near
Gubernatorial races heat up less than two months from elections 06:26

Since a judge in Pima County judge ruled that Arizona can enforce a near-total ban on abortions, abortion access has become a key issue in the tight race between Republican Kari Lake and Democrat Katie Hobbs to be the state's next governor.

A new CBS News Battleground Tracker poll of likely Arizona voters shows Hobbs and Lake tied at 49% with less than five weeks until Election Day. Six in 10 registered voters in Arizona say abortion should be legal in the state in most cases.

In September, a judge removed a decades-old injunction that blocked enforcement of a law that's been in place since 1901, over a decade before Arizona became a state. That law makes it illegal for anyone to provide an abortion surgically or with drugs and is punishable by two to five years in prison. 

The ruling, weeks before the midterm elections on Nov. 8, is energizing Democratic voters and some independent-leaning Republicans in the state, whose support could be crucial particularly in the race.

Former Republican state Sen. Heather Carter said Tuesday that she's switched her party registration to independent because of the "extreme" positions her GOP colleagues are taking on many policy issues, including abortion rights. 

"I've been registered Republican since I was 18 years-old, but the party has just moved beyond anything I recognize (from) when I first registered as a Republican," Carter said in an interview with CBS News. 

Katie Hobbs, left, and Kari Lake Brandon Bell/Getty Images, Brandon Bell/Getty Images

She said Arizona's abortion ban on can "create unintended consequences that are dangerous for women," and will turn Arizona into a "vigilante state for women receving healthcare."

Carter says she's urging Republican voters to cross party lines this fall. "I am asking you to vote for sanity," she said.

Abortion is also a key issue driving the Arizona Senate race. According to the new CBS News poll, Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly leads GOP nominee Blake Masters 51% to 48%. 

Like Democratic candidates elsewhere in the country, Kelly enjoys a wide lead among voters who say abortion is very important. More than seven in 10 likely Arizona voters who say abortion is very important in their vote for senator prefer Kelly over Masters. 

Republican Peggy Neely, a former elected official in Phoenix, said abortion access is the reason she's going to vote for Kelly, rather than Masters. 

"He's too extreme," Neely said. "We cannot have Blake Masters representing us as a women to make sure that our rights are protected."

Some Republican voters have said they're open to supporting Democrats in November because of the abortion rights issue.

"We need to leave women's bodies alone. As a man, we have no right, we should shut up," said Jorge Santana, a lifelong registered Republican who works in higher education. Speaking with CBS News at a farmers' market south of Phoenix, Santana said abortion rights are the main issue pushing him to vote for Democrats this fall.

For 21-year-old Maddie Merker, a student at Arizona State University, the recent change to the abortion law is motivating her to vote for Democrats as well. She said she wants to hear the candidates in the gubernatorial race talk more about environmental issues but acknowledged that abortion rights are the main issue driving her vote.

"People are going to get abortions, it is just if they are going to do it safely or not so it doesn't make sense to not let people do it because then it just puts more women at risk so I cannot agree with that," Merker said.

A day after the judge's ruling, Hobbs held a press conference promising to "use every tool at my disposal to restore abortion rights in Arizona." That led to her campaign's best fundraising week of cycle with over $1.2 million in grassroots donations fueled by reproductive rights advocates.

Lake's campaign has continued to focus on immigration, education and the economy, but the Republican nominee was asked about the abortion ruling in an appearnce on Fox News recently.

"I'm pro-life. I've never backed away from that and never will," Lake said. "The Democrats have tried to politicize the issue in such a disturbing way," she added.

On her campaign website, Lake says "we must also support people who choose to act responsibly when they are not ready to have a child, and that means making all common forms of birth control available over-the-counter and providing assistance to those who are financially unable to pay for their own birth control."

In Tucson, Lake supporters like Karen Kosha agree there should be certain exceptions like rape and incest for abortion, "but to use it as a birth control, and that is what a lot of Americans are doing, no, I don't support birth control by killing the babies."

Retired retail worker Jan McSheffrey told CBS News that she's a lifelong Republican and will vote for Lake because of her stance on abortion. "Abortion is basically child sacrifice in my estimation," McSheffrey said on Sunday before a Lake event in Tucson.  

Small business owner Beth Rouin said she has voted for Democrats including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but she plans to support the Republican ticket in Arizona this year. She voted for former president Trump in 2016 and 2020 but said she's not a "blind Trumper," adding that she likes Lake because "she is not afraid to speak her mind."

Rouin said abortion rights should be left up to the states, adding that women in Arizona who want the procedure can always drive to California.

"I am against it, but I also think a lot of women are backed up against the wall when they make that choice so I kind of understand it," Rouin said.

Two recent polls showed Hobbs leading Lake by one point with less than six weeks before Election Day. Both polls indicated abortion rights as one of the top issues for voters.

According to a Suffolk University / Arizona Republic poll, abortion is a significant motivation for  women voters in Arizona. More than seven in 10 Democratic women ranked the issue as their top priority this year, compared to 49% of independent women and 37% of Republican women said the same.

The close gubernatorial race is drawing attention from national GOP figures as well. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, is holding rallies with Kari Lake and Republican nominee for Senate Blake Masters on Tuesday and Wednesday in the state.

On Sunday, Trump will also campaign for Lake and Masters in Arizona.

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