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In Abortion Fight, 2020 Female Candidates Lead Call to Arms

The New York Times: In Abortion Fight, 2020 Female Candidates Lead Call to Arms

By Lisa Lerer and Katie Glueck

For Senator Elizabeth Warren, the moment brought up memories of “back alley butchers” and “desperate women.” Senator Kamala Harris compared it to “a scene from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’” And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand warned about a “war on women,” calling for Americans to “fight like hell.”

Female presidential candidates have charged into the battle over the new Alabama law that would, barring legal challenges, effectively outlaw abortions in the state, condemning it just minutes after the State Senate’s passage and continuing to sound the alarm as Gov. Kay Ivey signed it on Wednesday. Their swift responses were in contrast to those of two leading Democrats in the 2020 race, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who waited overnight to weigh in with their disapproval.

“When I was growing up, people got abortions,” Ms. Warren of Massachusetts wrote on Twitter. “Some were lucky, but others weren’t. They all went through hell. Access to safe, legal abortion is a constitutional RIGHT. Full stop.”

The repeated denunciations by the female candidates, in deeply personal terms that underscored the historic nature of six women running for president, not only intensified the spotlight on abortion policy but also raised questions about the role and influence of women in 2020.

As candidates, volunteers and strategists, women powered the party’s gains in the 2018 midterms. Women are again expected to make up a majority of voters in next year’s Democratic primaries, placing them at the center of the political fight for the party’s nomination and the White House. Some Democrats believe that the abortion fight could rally female voters in 2020, but they are less sure that the issue will benefit the female candidates in the primary race.

Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic operative and activist with Supermajority, a women’s political action group, applauded several of the female candidates for speaking out early and forcefully and said doing so could generate momentum for their campaigns. And she indicated that statements from Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg did not go far enough.

“They should all understand it’s a five-alarm fire,” she said.

But whether this issue transforms the standing of any of the female presidential candidates is another matter.

“Whether or not that then makes people listen to her policy around infrastructure or something that isn’t seen as a quote-unquote women’s issue, I don’t know,” Ms. Morales Rocketto said. “I doubt it, to be totally frank.”

Since the start of the primary contest late last year, Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have topped national and early state polls, leaving the female candidates struggling to break into the double digits in polling.

The abortion fight comes at a time when the women running for president are already grappling with fears among some Democrats that nominating a woman is too risky in 2020, given the imperative of beating President Trump.

In interviews with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, several pointed to the widespread recognition that women in politics are held to double standards compared with men on perceived characteristics like likability and toughness. Others are haunted by the Electoral College loss of Hillary Clinton, who has said she believes that sexism and misogyny contributed to the outcome. Often, Democrats argue for a woman on the ticket — as vice president.

“Because of how bad it is right now I don’t think the country is ready to put a woman at the top of the ticket,” said Dee Jones, 72, a retired teacher from Deerfield, N.H. “But a vice president that’s a woman would be a nice change.”

With the constitutional right to end a pregnancy at stake, the female candidates, including Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, saw an opportunity to cast themselves as champions of female voters, who intimately understand their fears of a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

Ms. Gillibrand of New York announced that she would travel to Atlanta on Thursday to hold a round table with women at the Georgia State House.

“Right now, the conversation about what women can do with our own bodies is being driven by too many male politicians,” she said. “It should be led by the actual experts: women and doctors. So I’m going to hear from the people most directly affected by abortion bans like Georgia’s.”

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey called on men to “speak out too.”

“Not because women are our mothers, wives, daughters. Because women are people. And all people deserve to control their own bodies,” he tweeted.

In emails and tweets to supporters, Ms. Harris of California and several other candidates solicited donations for abortion funds and other organizations that advocate women’s rights and access to health care.

The measure was also assailed by Mr. Sanders, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas and other candidates, who said the bill trampled on a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.

Several of the candidates used this week’s development in Alabama to speak more broadly about other policy and political matters, especially the judiciary. Mr. Sanders linked abortion access to his signature policy push, “Medicare for all.”

“Abortion is health care,” he tweeted. “When we pass Medicare for All, we will be guaranteeing a woman’s right to control her own body by covering comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion.”

Mr. Biden, meanwhile, offered one comment on the ruling, saying the Alabama measure and the fetal heartbeat bills passed by other states “clearly violate” the Supreme Court decision and “should be declared unconstitutional.” The former vice president, who once voted for a constitutional amendment that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade, has become more liberal on abortion rights over his four decades in office.

“Roe v Wade is settled law and should not be overturned,” he wrote. “This choice should remain between a woman and her doctor.”

Women are expected to make up a clear majority of voters in a Democratic primary — nearly 60 percent, according to Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who specializes in female voting behavior. But the evolution of abortion rights into a mainstay of the Democratic platform means the issue is unlikely to sway many votes in the primary, she said.

“In a primary, Democrats assume all the candidate are very pro-choice so they would not see a distinction,” Ms. Lake said. “It’s disqualifying not to support abortion rights.”

Strategists from both parties believe that the effects of the abortion ban could be far greater in a general election, when suburban women could, once again, emerge as a crucial swing voting bloc. While the push by Republicans to get the Supreme Court to reconsider the central holding in Roe v. Wade is likely to mobilize socially conservative voters who make up a key piece of their party base, it could turn off moderates and women.

The Alabama law bans abortions at every stage of pregnancy and criminalizes the procedure for doctors, who could be charged with felonies and face up to 99 years in prison. It includes an exception for cases when the mother’s life is at serious risk, but not for cases of rape or incest — a subject of fierce debate among lawmakers in recent days.

The procedure was not immediately outlawed, and it is far from clear when, or even if, the measure will ultimately take effect.

While many conservatives cheered the new law, some Republicans expressed doubt that such a restrictive law would help the party politically in 2020.

“It wouldn’t be a political winner among swing voters, that’s for certain,” said former Representative Ryan Costello, a Republican who represented a moderate suburban Philadelphia-area district through 2018. “Particularly among younger women, college-educated women, it could be an issue that they weigh a bit more heavily if something like this is front and center.”

Other Republicans worry that the abortion fight is a distraction from the booming economy, an issue they would prefer to put at the center of the political conversation. Mr. Trump is running on the strongest economy of any president seeking re-election since Bill Clinton in 1996.

The Alabama law represents the most far-reaching effort in the nation this year to curb abortion rights. Other states — including Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio — have enacted restrictive bills, including so-called fetal heartbeat bills; these bills essentially ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a time when many women do not yet know they are pregnant.

“This plays against Republicans with the very voters they lost in the midterms,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based G.O.P. strategist. “You have a lot of voters that may be nuanced in their perspective — they look at something like this and just think it’s a dramatic overreach.”

That is the point Democrats plan to drive home to voters. In talking points circulated to supporters, the abortion rights organization Naral Pro-Choice America urged advocates to link the state bills directly to the White House, casting the measures as part of “Trump’s anti-choice movement” that is explicitly designed to “punish women.”

“The G.O.P. has gone off the rails in terms of voters’ views on abortion,” Ilyse Hogue, president of the organization, said. “Women started to leave the party at record rates in 2018, and we’re going to make sure that trend continues well into 2020.”