For Democratic Female Governors, the Roe Leak Alters the Midterm Calculus

Every female governor’s seat is up for election this year. All nine of them.

The three Republicans are likely to sail to re-election. It’s a different story on the Democratic side, where most of the women rode in on the 2018 wave, flipping Republican seats.

That year, Laura Kelly of Kansas campaigned on education, and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan pledged to “fix the damn roads.” Janet Mills of Maine, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico and Kate Brown of Oregon benefited, in an especially favorable climate, from running in states that lean toward Democrats.

In 2022, however, everything has changed for Democrats — and one big issue has become a five-alarm fire for the party.

As the Supreme Court stands poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and throw regulations on abortion to the states, governors are set to be on the front lines of the political clashes that would follow.

The end of Roe would also put Democratic female governors in a position both powerful and precarious: unique messengers on an urgent issue for the party, who hold more real ability to effect change than their counterparts in a gridlocked Congress — and who must balance a range of other priorities for voters in a challenging election year.

Democrats and their allies believe that focusing on abortion will resonate from red states like Kansas to blue states like Oregon, even if candidates tailor their messaging to their states.

“We’re moving into a completely new world,” Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood and the daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards of Texas, told me recently.

While polling has tended to show abortion relatively low on the list of voters’ priorities, supporters of abortion rights argue that this conventional wisdom should be tossed out the window. Those polling questions, they say, were asked when the idea of losing the constitutional right to abortion was only theoretical.

“The fundamental issue that gets lost in reporting isn’t how voters feel about abortion personally,” Ms. Richards said. “The question is, who do they want in charge of making decisions about pregnancy?”

On both sides of the aisle, strategists often prefer women to carry out messaging on abortion.

Kelly Dittmar, a professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that when she interviewed women in Congress, she found that both Republicans and Democrats saw themselves as the best messengers, leveraging their identities as women and mothers.

Republicans in particular sometimes find that it is more effective to have women affirm that they oppose abortion.

Women have delivered both parties big victories in recent years: Female Democratic candidates helped take back the House for their party in 2018, and Republican women recovered many of those losses in 2020.

“In some ways, it’s because women are really good candidates that they’re in the most competitive races, particularly the incumbents,” Dr. Dittmar said of the 2022 governor contests. “They’re there because they won races that people didn’t think they could win, like Kansas and even Michigan.”

Male Republican candidates, especially those in battleground states, face greater risks when talking about abortion.

Holly Richardson, a Republican former state representative in Utah who described herself as “pro-life” and supports access to contraception and sex education, said she had been “a little horrified” by what Republicans in other states have said about abortion.

“We need to decrease the perceptive need for abortion, and we do that by supporting women,” she said.

The nation’s Republican female governors — Kay Ivey of Alabama, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Kim Reynolds of Iowa — oversee solidly red states, and have long campaigned against abortion. That might not shift much, even if Roe is overturned.

“Where the messaging might change more is on the Democratic side,” Dr. Dittmar said. “Because they’re saying, ‘Now we have to hold the line.’”

Among Democratic female governors, there’s virtually no debate about whether women should have access to an abortion.

In a guest essay for The New York Times, Governor Whitmer highlighted a lawsuit she filed last month asking the Michigan Supreme Court to examine whether the state’s Constitution included the right to abortion access. She wrote that the suit could “offer a course of action” for other politicians to follow.

Other Democrats, perhaps recognizing that the party has few legislative or judicial options nationally, have stuck to broader pledges to try to protect abortion rights.

Stacey Abrams, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, recently promised attendees at an Emily’s List gala that “we will fight every day from now to Election Day and beyond, because this is a fight for who we are.”

In red states, Democratic candidates for governor are walking a finer line.

In Kansas, Laura Kelly has reiterated her support for abortion rights, but she has so far focused more on education and taxes, issues that helped her win in 2018.

Joy Hofmeister, a Democrat running for governor of Oklahoma who left the Republican Party last year, described herself as “pro-life,” but said she believed women should make choices about their reproductive health with their doctor.

She avoided taking a position on Roe v. Wade specifically, saying that the Supreme Court would not “be calling to ask my opinion.”

Ms. Hofmeister, who serves as the superintendent of public instruction in Oklahoma, criticized Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, for signing into law some of the most restrictive legislation on abortion in the country, a measure prohibiting the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy and requiring enforcement from civilians rather than government officials.

“Governor Stitt is leading us down a path where miscarriage bounty hunters could swipe a woman’s private health information for a $10,000 reward, or abortion is criminalized with up to 10 years in prison for physicians,” Ms. Hofmeister said. “This is extremism.”

Kathy Hochul of New York is the only Democratic female governor all but guaranteed to remain in office next year. Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon will not run again because of term limits, and the rest are likely to face respectable challengers.

The most vulnerable is undoubtedly Ms. Kelly of Kansas, who represents the most Republican-leaning state of the group.

Based on the 2020 presidential results, Whitmer should be the next most vulnerable female governor, after President Biden won the state by less than three percentage points. But Republicans have struggled to find a candidate to take on Ms. Whitmer — and her $10 million war chest.

In Maine, Ms. Mills faces a tougher fight against a Republican former governor, Paul LePage. And in New Mexico, Ms. Lujan Grisham should be safe unless there’s a huge Republican wave.

In several other states, women in both parties are challenging male governors. The outcomes of all these races will determine whether, in the year that a landmark ruling on abortion rights is set to be overturned, the ranks of female governors may shrink — or even make it to the double digits.

— Leah & Blake

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