Abortion debate puts legislative majorities at risk

Republicans’ reaction to the state Supreme Court’s ruling made clear what a political earthquake it was.
Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in Phoenix on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Jonathan Copper)

The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of an 1864 law that bans abortions and punishes providers with jail time, thrusting the heated debate over access to reproductive care into the midst of campaign season in one of America’s most narrowly divided swing states.

Democrats and supporters of abortion rights reacted with fury, calling the court’s decision a return to an era when women had few rights.

But it was the reaction among Republicans that offered the clearest insight into the political earthquake the Arizona justices had delivered.

“Let me be very clear: This decision cannot stand,” Rep. Matt Gress (R) said in a statement. “I categorically reject rolling back the clock to a time when slavery was still legal and where we could lock up women and doctors because of an abortion.”

Sen. Shawnna Bolick (R) also called for repealing the law passed almost half a century before Arizona was admitted to the union. Bolick, a member of the legislature’s more conservative wing, is married to Justice Clint Bolick, one of the four justices who voted to uphold the abortion ban.

Even Kari Lake, the conservative former news anchor now seeking a U.S. Senate seat, reversed her earlier support for the law and announced her opposition to the ruling.

Even before the ruling, abortion rights were likely to be at the forefront of Arizona voters’ minds this year. Supporters of abortion rights are gathering signatures to place a measure on the November ballot that would enshrine those rights in the state constitution. Combined, the ruling and the ballot measure all but guarantee Democrats will get the chance to run a campaign on an issue that has served them well in recent elections.

“We are mobilizing our members to elect leaders we know will fight for our freedoms and ensure the right to abortion is on the ballot so Arizonans can vote to restore and enshrine abortion into our state constitution,” said Athena Salman, a Democratic former member of the Arizona House who now serves as campaign director for Reproductive Freedom for All, a leading abortion rights group.

In the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, proponents of abortion rights have yet to lose a ballot campaign, even in places like Kentucky and Kansas, among the most conservative states in the country. Worryingly for Republicans, Democrats have overperformed in races where abortion rights are a major focus — including in the 2022 midterm elections and the 2023 state legislative elections in Virginia and New Jersey.

Republican strategists are warning their own candidates not to repeat the mistakes that led to those failures.

“To date, the border has been issue 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Arizona. This ruling changes all that, and Republicans in competitive races can’t bury their heads in the sand like many did last cycle,” said Daniel Scarpinato, an Arizona Republican strategist and former chief of staff to then-Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who signed a 15-week abortion ban. “They need to be clear about what they are for and what they are not for.”

Arizona is one of a handful of states where Democrats believe they can make inroads — and possibly capture outright majorities — in this year’s elections. Republicans hold a 16-14 majority in the state Senate, and a 31-29 majority in the state House, meaning even a single seat flipping puts the GOP’s hold on power in jeopardy.

A proposed abortion rights amendment has already qualified for the ballot in Florida, while other measures are circulating in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The Republican majority in Pennsylvania’s state Senate is similarly tenuous. Republicans hold 28 of 50 seats, meaning Democrats would need to win just three additional seats to seize total control of state government, alongside the Democratic House and Gov. Josh Shapiro (D).

Republicans hold supermajorities in Florida, Arkansas, Missouri, Montana and South Dakota, and a wide majority in Iowa. Nebraska’s legislature is nominally nonpartisan, though Republicans hold functional control.

Democrats pledged to make abortion rights a key focus in other states, where ballot measures do not exist.

Samantha Paisley, a spokesperson for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, pointed to Wisconsin and New Hampshire, both states where Democrats believe they can recapture majorities, as places where their candidates will highlight Republican opposition to abortion rights.

“Abortion is on the ballot in 2024, and state legislatures are on the frontlines of determining the landscape of access,” Paisley said. “The stakes couldn’t be clearer as fundamental freedoms hang in the balance.”