EAGAN, Minn. — Before dozens of volunteers fanned out through the Twin Cities suburbs to knock on voters’ doors on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., gathered them in a campaign office in a strip mall in Eagan to make sure they remembered a specific message.
“As you go to each door, what I want you to have in your mind is that if Tyler Kistner is your member of Congress, he is someone who has said he is 100% pro-life,” Craig said, referring to her Republican opponent. “Today, the people of this district have never had a more distinct choice. We are the party — and I am the member of Congress — who will be the wall to protect your reproductive rights, to protect your privacy, to protect your freedoms.”
In competitive districts across the country like Craig’s, Democrats in difficult reelection races are leaning heavily into preserving abortion rights as a closing argument for their uphill bids to hang onto their seats in a year when their party’s majority is at risk.
Armed with polling data that shows that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion has moved independent voters in their direction, they have reoriented their campaigns around the issue in the crucial final weeks before the election.
The strategy is built around the hope that in the handful of close races that will determine control of the House, the demise of federal abortion rights has energized independent voters and conservative-leaning women so intensely that it could allow otherwise vulnerable Democrats to eke out victories that previously seemed out of reach.
Nearly every advertisement that House Democrats’ super PAC is funding is about reproductive rights, including one that dramatizes the consequences of a national abortion ban, featuring police officers handcuffing doctors, nurses and patients who sought or performed “health care services that have been legal for nearly 50 years.” Roundtables hosted by vulnerable incumbents flanked by OB/GYNs and elaborate events rolling out Planned Parenthood endorsements abound.
It is a rare opportunity for Democrats to go on the offensive during a campaign cycle that was initially expected to deal their party steep losses, and in which their majority is still at risk amid rising inflation, concerns about crime and President Joe Biden’s sagging approval ratings. In recent weeks, however, internal polling has shown that the threat of losing abortion access has energized some abortion rights supporters who might not ordinarily vote in a midterm election and swayed independents toward Democratic candidates, potentially affording the party a chance to stanch its losses.
Whether that issue alone can turn the tide for Democrats remains to be seen. They have toiled to find ways to remind voters about the major climate, health and tax measure enacted in August over unified Republican opposition, which included a popular measure to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
And Craig’s campaign volunteers were armed with pamphlets trumpeting the endorsement of a local county sheriff that prominently featured a large photo of the two — a nod to the potential potency of the issue of crime, which Republicans have tried to weaponize against Democrats as Election Day nears.
But the abortion decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, Craig said over pepperoni pizza and a beer in between campaign stops at a brewery in Woodbury, “changes everything.”
When she had driven past Sam’s Club that morning, she said, gas was selling for $3.44 — a price she acknowledged was “painful.”
“But when you’re talking about taking away someone’s personal rights, and the government interfering with your health care decisions or your marriage decisions, or your decision about whether to use birth control or not? That’s a whole different level.”
Many of her constituents, she said, “didn’t like masks. They didn’t like vaccine mandates, and they sure as hell don’t want a politician in the doctor’s office with them.”
Vulnerable Democrats all across the country are trying out similar messages. In central Virginia, Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s first advertisement of the campaign season featured an attack on her Republican opponent, Yesli Vega, as “too extreme for Virginia,” citing Vega’s support for banning abortions.
In Pennsylvania, Rep. Susan Wild, who is facing a rematch against Republican Lisa Scheller, a manufacturing executive, recently criticized her opponent’s stance on abortion as government overreach.
“It’s not the role of Lisa Scheller — or anybody in the government — to be telling you what you can do with your body,” Wild says in an advertisement.
And in east-central Michigan, Rep. Dan Kildee, who is facing his first serious reelection challenge since he won office a decade ago, is running proudly as “the only pro-choice candidate in this race.”
Kildee said in an interview that he had “lost count” of the number of Republicans who had told him they would not support candidates who oppose abortion rights in November. “A really significant percentage of people in Michigan and in my district believe that the decision should be made by a woman facing the choice, not by somebody in government,” he continued. “And that seems to be the animating sentiment — as opposed to a real debate over the efficacy of abortion as a choice. It’s really about who should make the choice.”
Republicans, confident that voters will be more focused on inflation and public safety than abortion rights, have largely let the issue go unanswered. Many have sought to avoid the topic altogether, and in some cases upon entering the general election cycle they have edited or removed sections about abortion on their websites used to differentiate themselves in crowded Republican primaries.
Kildee’s opponent, Paul Junge, said during a 2020 Republican primary debate that Roe v. Wade extended “made-up rights” to women and that he was “pro-life” and “supports life at all times.” House Democrats’ super PAC featured the comments prominently in an advertisement that included an OB/GYN.
Craig’s opponent,Kistner, who served nine years as an officer in the Marine Corps and lost to Craig by 2 percentage points in 2020, called himself “100% pro-life” on his campaign website during his primary last cycle, a descriptor that Craig has latched onto. Kistner has said that he would support abortion if the life of the mother were in danger and in cases of rape and incest, and that the issue should be left to the states to decide.
During her primary contest, Scheller said she would be “open” to supporting federal legislation that would make it a criminal offense for a doctor to perform an abortion if cardiac activity is detectable. But she added that she would support abortion in cases of incest and rape. (That has not stopped Democrats from running ads accusing Scheller of wanting to criminalize abortion “even in cases of rape and incest.”)
Democrats have even extended the attacks against Republicans who are broadly supportive of abortion rights. A carefully worded television advertisement against George Logan, a Republican and former Connecticut state senator who is running against Rep. Jahana Hayes, intones that he “refused to support Roe v. Wade” and would vote for a party leader in the House who would push a national abortion ban.
Logan is one of the few Republicans running for Congress across the country who have explicitly said they do not support a national ban.
“I believe it should be up to the states,” he said after a rally in New Britain hosted by the Republican National Committee, according to The Connecticut Mirror. “Right here in Connecticut, we have codified a woman’s right to choose. That’s what I support.”