Abortion Access Is Now A Key Issue In Many Governor's Races : The NPR Politics Podcast When the Supreme Court declared that abortion access is an issue that should be decided by states, it introduced a new, high-stakes political fight into many of the 36 gubernatorial races happening this year. Here's what that looks like in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, WHYY political reporter Katie Meyer, and Michigan Radio reporter Zoe Clark.

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Abortion Access Is Now A Key Issue In Many Governor's Races

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JEN: Hi. This is Jen (ph) in Cambridge, Mass. I'm currently walking along the Charles River with my dog, Charles. This podcast was recorded at...


1:10 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, the 7 of July.

JEN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.


KEITH: Charles by the Charles - woof. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

KEITH: Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, we've been hearing a familiar refrain from top Democrats.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We must elect more senators and representatives who will codify the women's right to choose.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: I support electing a pro-choice Congress.

NANCY PELOSI: Reproductive freedom is on the ballot in November.

BIDEN: This fall, Roe is on the ballot.

KEITH: It is a strategy that has sparked criticism from some abortion-rights activists, and we will get to that in a bit. But, Danielle, Roe is on the ballot in more ways than just the balance of power in Congress. There's a lot going on at the state level.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And when the Supreme Court overturned Roe in the Dobbs decision, as they did, they threw the question of abortion's legality back to states. Many states have trigger laws that immediately went into effect. Others had existing bans from the pre-Roe days that sort of flipped into effect. And so the question now is, what comes next in the elections? And at the state level, then, that means if you're - depending on which side you're on, electing both governors and legislators and attorney generals, people up and down the ballot who will either tighten or loosen abortion laws depending on, again, what side you're on.

KEITH: Well, on today's NPR POLITICS PODCAST, we are going to take you to three states - Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin - where that Supreme Court decision has raised the stakes in the midterms. And I want to start in Pennsylvania with Katie Meyer of member station WHYY. Thanks for being with us.

KATIE MEYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

KEITH: So the big, you know, top of the ballot there is the governor's race. Pennsylvania has an open seat for the governorship this fall. Who's running, and what does it mean for abortion?

MEYER: Yeah. So there's a pretty clear difference between the two candidates who are running for governor. One is Josh Shapiro, Democrat. He's the current attorney general. He supports basically keeping Pennsylvania's abortion laws the same as they are right now. Pennsylvania did not have a trigger law. It allows abortion up to about 24 weeks gestation, and then after that if there is some sort of a medical emergency. And the Republican running for the governorship, Doug Mastriano, a state senator, is on a completely other side of the issue. He supports a ban on abortion, basically without exceptions.

KEITH: And that came up in one of the primary debates, right?

MEYER: It did indeed, yeah. So this is a clip from Mastriano in a primary debate saying that - or making reference to Kathy Barnette, who at the time was running for U.S. Senate. She lost, but the two had been very closely aligned on abortion for a reason you will hear.


DOUG MASTRIANO: I am pro-life. I don't give a way for exceptions, either. Kathy Barnette, who is going to be our next U.S. senator, she is a product of rape.

KEITH: So that is a position that is pretty much as far to the right as you can get on abortion. How is that playing in the race for governor? Or how - like, is this a top issue in that race?

MEYER: It absolutely is a top issue. And I think most people who, you know, are plugged into this issue already know and understand that that kind of an abortion ban, that's a hard lift, even for a very conservative legislature, which our legislature - you know, the House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans. They're pretty conservative. But even for them, that's a lot. However, basically, the way that this race has been set up and the way it's looking is that there is going to be a really clear distinction if Josh Shapiro wins the governorship and the legislature, you know, has stayed Republican-controlled, as it's generally expected to, then abortion will stay legal because he'll veto any ban or restriction that comes down.

If Mastriano becomes governor, it's a much more open question. There's an extreme likelihood that at the very least, the legislature will pass some kind of an abortion restriction. Now, whether that's to 14 weeks or six weeks or even more than that, you know, it's hard to say right now. We have legislative elections coming up. They are going to be a little bit better for Democrats thanks to congressional redistricting. However, again, it's generally expected that GOP control will remain. But what they're willing to do is an open question. But what we also know is that this is something Mastriano is going to push for, and it's something that he has made sort of a very forthright issue in his campaign, and he has said his positions very clearly. And so there will be some expectation if he wins the governorship from his supporters to restrict abortion in some way.

KEITH: Danielle, I want you to step back for us a little bit. There has been a frustration on the left for probably as long as either of us have been covering politics that national Democrats kind of - just don't always do the best job of organizing, of getting people to vote in midterms that, you know - like, there isn't this turnout organization, and that as a result, at the state level, they often get outmaneuvered. And it seems like this could be happening with Republican legislatures.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. This is a - very much a frustration among abortion-rights activists. And not only that, there is a frustration among these activists, which I know we have talked about on this podcast before, which is that, you know, if you're an activist for abortion rights or for any cause, you are focused on that cause. And so it is easy to wonder how in the world has this cause not gotten the attention it deserves? So in the case of abortion rights, many activists wonder, well, my God, how did this not get codified in the last 50 years? And how has it not been better protected at the state level and so on and so forth?

So now that Roe has been overturned, with the right to abortion sort of having in a lot of people's minds just sort of seemed like part of the wallpaper - you know, it's just - it exists. It's there. There's just sort of a shock, I think, among a lot of Democratic voters of, oh, now we have to do something. And with that shock comes, well, why don't we do something before? And it just creates a lot of anger and animosity.

KEITH: More on what that might mean for voter turnout in the second half of the pod. But Katie Meyer of WHYY, thank you for joining us for the first half.

MEYER: Thank you.

KEITH: And we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, the abortion landscape in Michigan and Danielle's reporting from Wisconsin.

And we're back. And Zoe Clark of Michigan Radio joins us now. Hi, Zoe.


KEITH: So Michigan also has a governor's race coming up this fall. You have incumbent Democrat Gretchen Whitmer running for reelection. What is her message on abortion so far? Has she been campaigning on this issue?

CLARK: Yes. She has been a fierce supporter of abortion rights in Michigan even though Michigan is one of these states that has the so-called trigger law - right? - where, after Roe v. Wade was overturned, abortion would have, because of a 1931 law, been illegal. There are a lot of different court machinations right now, so abortion remains legal. But actually, one of the things that Whitmer did - and this was even before the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court, even before the leaked opinion - right? - came out in May - Whitmer used this special executive power that governors in Michigan have and actually asked the Michigan Supreme Court to take up the legality of that 1931 law in Michigan. So, yes, she has been a fierce supporter.

KEITH: And then tell us about the Republican side of the ticket.

CLARK: Yeah. Well, A, it's just been, like, a crazy, crazy race. We should just start off by saying there were originally, like, 140 people running. I'm joking. Maybe it was close to, like, a baker's dozen. But a bunch of them actually - because of some fraudulent signatures on their nominating petitions, they got booted off the ballot. And so now we sort of have these backbenchers that a lot of Michigan voters, truthfully, maybe had never heard of. None of them have ever really been politicians in the past.

So there's basically five who are running right now on the primary, which is August 2 here in Michigan. All of them, like, want to keep the ban on abortion except to protect the life of the mother. Tudor Dixon - she is a conservative media personality. She just kind of seems to be the favorite right now. Some of the more establishment candidates are coming out. But most importantly, I think, in the Republican primary, Right to Life of Michigan just endorsed her. And that's a really, really big get in Republican politics.

KEITH: So it sounds like the stakes are really high in Michigan when it comes to abortion in these midterms.

CLARK: Yeah, it really is. And it's because there's kind of quite a few different scenarios that are going on right now. On top of Governor Whitmer and her requests to the Michigan Supreme Court to take up the legality of this 1931 law, there is also a petition drive going on in this state. And the question basically could be going to voters, should abortion rights be enshrined in the state constitution? Gathering signatures is happening right now, but the group Reproductive Freedom for All actually is going to turn in the signatures on Monday. And they just announced this week that they believe that they have gathered over 800,000 signatures. That's historic in Michigan. First of all, they only need 425,000 to make it on the ballot. So that's just so telling about the sort of impact - right? - and fervor that people have.

KEITH: Danielle, you are recently back from a reporting trip in Wisconsin where you were asking voters about these issues. How did what you saw in Wisconsin compare to what we're hearing from Michigan and Pennsylvania?

KURTZLEBEN: Wisconsin sounds a lot like what Zoe is saying about in Michigan, where you have an incumbent Democratic governor, in this case Tony Evers, who is doing what he can to try to protect abortion rights. So one of the things that I really heard from voters who support abortion rights there is that they want to keep Evers in office because many of them assume that the legislature will remain Republican, or they fear that it will remain Republican. And they see Evers as kind of just a wall, as a protection of whatever rights they think that he might be able to protect.

KEITH: So you both have hinted at this, but I'm curious what your sense is of how this is going to play in November, like, what this will mean for voter turnout and motivation because, you know, traditionally midterms are relatively sleepy.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. It's complicated, as we always say. I mean, for people on the abortion-rights side, it is very motivating in particular because they have just seen, in many states, those abortion rights taken away. Now, Democrats are dealing with a perception versus reality problem, which is, it is very true that many of them - for example, Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress - have very limited tools at their disposal right now as to how to protect abortion rights.

That said, there is definitely the perception that there's not enough fight, that Biden is not out there, that some governors, that some legislators are not out there really, really agitating for this more - not just fundraising often, not just asking for votes but getting angry about it. And I spoke to one woman at a protest in Wisconsin. Her name is Janelle Hunt (ph), and she said she's really disheartened with national Democrats.

JANELLE HUNT: Makes me question who I voted for. I never thought, seeing Biden win, seeing a female vice president, that we would be seeing in the same term Roe v. Wade being overturned. I never thought I'd see that.

KEITH: And then the question in the ballot box becomes, well, I mean, what are you going to do? Like, what choice do Democratic voters have? I guess they can choose not to vote.

KURTZLEBEN: True. And that's the other thing. As we have seen in so many recent elections, so many Americans' votes are negative votes. They're not necessarily, I love Joe Biden. I love this person or that person. It's, by God, I don't want the alternative to win. And in many cases, especially on the topic of abortion, for a lot of voters, that is plenty motivating enough. And so that may well be what happens.

CLARK: Oh, my gosh, a hundred percent - same in Michigan. I mean, what's going to be so fascinating here is to see particularly, again, if this question about abortion makes it on the ballot. Is that the reason now that people turn out? But is there a flipside, right? Are folks who - like, Right to Life is this organization that really turns out and gets their people out. Is it an opposite motivating factor? And Michigan is a purple state. And so we're just - we're going to have to watch. This is all kind of very new.

KEITH: This is going to be fascinating to watch. Well, Zoe Clark of Michigan Radio, thank you for joining us on the pod.

CLARK: Oh, thanks, you two.

KEITH: We will be back in your feeds tomorrow with our weekly roundup. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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