Podcast: Politics of Arizona Abortion Measure Repeal Vote : The NPR Politics Podcast A handful of Arizona Republicans are expected to join with Democratic lawmakers in order to repeal the state's near-total abortion ban. The move is an apparent effort to blunt the power of a November abortion access ballot measure that strategists say could spark a Democratic wave election in the state.

This episode: senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and KJZZ senior editor Ben Giles.

This podcast was produced by Kelli Wessinger and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Principle Or Pragmatism? Abortion Fight Divides Arizona Republicans

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ANGELINA: Hi. This is Angelina (ph).

MATT: And Matt (ph). We're from East Lansing, Mich...

ANGELINA: And we're about to walk across stage to get our master's degrees in political science...


MATT: At Michigan State University. This podcast was recorded at...


1:20 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30.

MATT: Things may have changed by the time you hear this.

ANGELINA: But we're going to be one step closer to getting our Ph.D.s in political science.

MATT: OK. Here's the show.


KEITH: Congratulations.

LIASSON: Congrats. Yeah.

KEITH: You can teach me a thing or two. I'm sure of that. Hey, there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And Ben Giles is here from member station KJZZ in Arizona. Hello again.


KEITH: So we have you here because Arizona lawmakers this week are trying to repeal a near-total abortion ban that dates back to the 1800s that could take effect this June. They are trying to repeal it before that happens. The fix - Republican lawmakers are trying to return to a 2022 state law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Ben, you have been covering this. There is a lot to explain. So let's start at the beginning. How did this ban from the 1800s come up to the surface?

GILES: Well, it's been on the books since 1864. And, in fact, Republican lawmakers in 2022 explicitly left it in place, hoping that Roe v. Wade would be overturned, and then the law could take effect, which is ultimately what happened.

KEITH: And, Ben, now there is an effort in the legislature, which you're covering, to repeal this 1800s ban. What does this look like?

GILES: Well, last week in the Arizona State House, it looked like 29 Democrats and three Republicans overruling the objections of the House Speaker and voting to repeal this 1864 law, and we're expecting similar action in the State Senate tomorrow, where 14 Democrats and at least two Republicans have indicated they, too, support repeal.

KEITH: How do religious conservatives and Republicans who wanted this 1800s ban in place - how do they feel about what's happening?

GILES: Well, it's almost like these handful of Republicans, to them, are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, right? Like, this was a big deal for conservative Republican voters, particularly religious conservatives, whose views on abortion are viewed through that religious lens. They saw the 1864 ban being upheld by the Supreme Court as sort of the culmination of years - of decades of work in Arizona to restrict access to abortions. They saw it as a huge win, and now a lot of them are really despondent that there's these select few Republican lawmakers at the state legislature voting to undo it.

But they're also despondent by the responses from Republicans not in elected office yet, but those on the campaign trail - folks like former President Donald Trump and U.S. Senate hopeful Republican Kari Lake, who have called for the legislature to - in Trump's words, to fix this situation - to undo that 1864 ban and put in place a more reasonable, they say, 15-week ban.

KEITH: So Mara, this has been fascinating because no sooner did former President Trump announce his abortion policy would be, well, it should just be handled by the states - you don't need my abortion policy; the Supreme Court says send it to the states - did this 1864 law come to great prominence. So it does seem like it really scrambled the politics.

LIASSON: Right. The states acted just like Donald Trump said he wanted them to, and it caused a lot of problems politically for Republicans. Now, Donald Trump recently gave an interview to Time magazine where he refused to say whether he would veto any further abortion restrictions that Congress might send him. He said this is up to the states, even though he also brags all the time that he created the conservative Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe. But he said that states are - it's up to the states to do whatever they want, including monitoring women's pregnancies, which sounds very Orwellian. He also was asked, what about states that wanted to prosecute women for having abortions? This is something that Donald Trump himself had suggested in the 2016 campaign, but he also wouldn't answer that question either.

KEITH: And in 2016, he walked it back pretty quickly.

LIASSON: Yes, he walked it back. Yes.

KEITH: So Ben, this is all happening as advocates for abortion access in the state of Arizona had already been pushing for a ballot measure, out gathering signatures for a ballot measure, to enshrine a right to an abortion into the Arizona Constitution. What does this do to that effort?

GILES: Well, I spoke with one of the volunteer signature-gatherers for that campaign shortly after the Arizona Supreme Court's decision. And in her words, this ruling was a shot in the arm. I mean, the campaign was already very, very successful by any standard. They announced, I think it was earlier this month, that they've already collected a half a million signatures. That's well more than they need to qualify. But they're aiming for 800,000 signatures. That'd be more than two times the number required to qualify for the ballot, and that might discourage legal challenges - attempts to keep that initiative off the ballot to invalidate signatures. If they've got twice as many, they've got a pretty healthy buffer there to survive those legal challenges.

LIASSON: Well, Ben, let me ask you a political question about this referendum because, for the anti-abortion activists who, as you describe them, are pretty upset about the idea of putting in a 15-week ban instead of a total ban, would they stay home in the fall and not come out? And also, what happens if the 15-week ban goes into place? Does that mean that the abortion right side will lose some steam in that referendum fight?

GILES: Well, let me address the first part of that question. I think that religious conservative voters are really grappling with party loyalty and how that conflicts right now with their deeply, deeply held religious beliefs on abortion. I spoke with some folks who were rallying at the Capitol a week ago or two weeks ago who said, I'm not sure if I can vote for Trump. I'm not sure if I can support Kari Lake anymore because this issue is that important to them. But they do recognize the political dilemma, which is, if they stay home and they don't vote for Trump and they don't vote for Lake, that's as good as a vote for Biden and as good as a vote for Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego running for that U.S. Senate seat. And it also helps the abortion access initiative here, which could legalize abortion up to 24 weeks.

Now, for the political question on the left - does repealing this 1864 ban hurt them in some ways? I suppose, arguably, it can because, if the 1864 ban is left in place, it creates - one political consultant I talked to described it as this really binary choice on the ballot in November - no abortions or abortions up to 24 weeks. And the thinking is voters will side with the right to at least some abortions if it's all or nothing at the ballot.

So eliminating the near-total ban and leaving in place a 15-week ban - that does make the decision a little more complicated for some voters. But I think Democrats - they view this as a situation where they can't just sit on their hands here and not try to do something in the wake of this ruling. They had to try to act. And in this case, they were able to act because a handful of Republican lawmakers also see that binary choice coming up in November and say, I don't want to have to run for reelection when the choice is all or nothing on abortion.

KEITH: All right, well, we are going to take a quick break, and we will have more in a moment.

And we're back. And I do want to talk a bit more about presidential politics. Mara, what are the politics here?

LIASSON: Well, it's really interesting because Republicans are a little bit like the dog that caught the car. They succeeded in their 50-year quest to overturn Roe, and Donald Trump understands how significant that is to the Republican base. But the majority of Americans were comfortable with Roe. That was a kind of middle ground. They were OK with abortion being legal up to a certain point, with certain restrictions. And as Trump himself has said several times, this has become a loser issue for Republicans. So he doesn't want to talk about it anymore. He doesn't want to be pinned down on what he would do about some of these other restrictions if it came to his desk.

What's really interesting is that President Biden is really leaning into this. Every single time since Roe was overturned that abortion rights have been on the ballot, including in red states like Ohio and Kansas, abortion rights have won. So the Democrats think this is a great issue for them. The big question is, is it going to be the top priority for voters? How is it going to stack up against immigration and inflation and all the other issues?

KEITH: Well, Ben, I will turn that to you - not that I expect any of us to have an answer. But certainly, if abortion is literally on the ballot in Arizona this fall - and Arizona is most certainly a swing state - this is going to be a thing.

GILES: Yeah, you know, I heard from one Republican consultant who said this ruling turned Arizona from a lean-Trump state to a lean-Biden state. And we've seen polling and we've seen reports that the U.S. Senate race here has flipped from toss-up to leans Democrat in favor of Congressman Ruben Gallego over Kari Lake. Republicans know this is a losing issue. I watched an interview that a Republican consultant for Kari Lake did with Steve Bannon the day after the Arizona Supreme Court ruling. And I should note that the Lake campaign has issued statements and Kari Lake has said she supports a repeal of this 1864 ban. But the consultant told Bannon that this is really a losing issue. She also argues it's the only issue Democrats have to run on.

There are efforts by the Lake camp to shift the conversation back to immigration, back to the economy, things that they think will resonate with the all-important independent voters in the state. But at least for now, it appears that abortion is going to be the biggest issue. And because of this citizen initiative, and also because the state legislature might refer some questions on abortion to the ballot themselves, there could be multiple questions on abortion come November. So it's very likely that this will continue to be close to, if not the top issue for Arizona voters.

KEITH: Wait, I just want to get you to pause on that. You're saying there may not just be one ballot measure related to abortion. There could be multiple? And what would the others do?

GILES: Right. So there's a citizen initiative right now that we discussed. That's gathering signatures to get on the ballot. But Republican state lawmakers here - there was a leaked memo a few weeks back that detailed efforts they might take to refer as many as three more questions about abortion to the ballot. And that memo was explicit in stating that this is an effort to retain some legislative control over restricting access to abortion, but also to muddy the waters, to dilute support for this citizen initiative - the 24-week ban - in hopes that maybe that would fail while these GOP-led ballot measures would pass instead. So it's very much an effort to undermine what could be a tough pill to swallow - a 24-week ban approved by Arizona voters at the ballot in November.

LIASSON: You know, this is a just fascinating - it's like a test case of the abortion issue. This isn't just a battleground state. It has a marquee Senate race. And for you to describe the states flipping from lean-Trump to lean-Biden basically overnight because of this issue, I can't think of another issue in states that has done that in recent times.

KEITH: Well, and we'll have to watch and see what happens when voters actually vote. But this, as you say, Mara, is really a test case on what level of restriction voters want. It is a test case about the saliency of this issue of abortion access in a presidential election year.

LIASSON: Yes, absolutely. And we're going to see not only what voters do at the polls, but how this drives turnout. You know, does it activate the Democratic base? There are a lot of other issues they care about that could be keeping them home - like, for young voters, the war in Gaza. Maybe abortion is a counterweight.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there for now. Ben Giles of KJZZ, thank you so much.

GILES: Thanks for having me.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

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


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