Abortion politics could put pressure on endangered Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones as his state pushes the strictest limits in the country, while presidential contenders seek to use new state abortion bans to rally core supporters.
Conservative state legislatures around the country have pushed curbs on abortion this year in an effort to turn back the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a national right to abortion.
Alabama passed a bill this week that would essentially ban abortion, with a limited exception for saving the life of the woman. The measure, signed Wednesday by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, also includes criminal penalties for providers who violate its terms.
Jones, who narrowly won a special election in 2017, has criticized the effort, which could frustrate Republicans who voted for him or sat out the election.
“The legislation is clearly an attack on a woman’s freedom to make her own health decisions, making no exceptions in the case of rape or incest, even if the victim is a child,” Jones said in a video before the bill’s passage. “People of faith and good will in Alabama, Republican and Democrat alike, do not agree with such extreme proposals or the offensive rhetoric and tactics used to promote them.”
Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant and president of Eagle Consulting Group, said Jones is taking a risk.
“It’s pretty clear that Sen. Jones is not where the rest of Alabama is on that issue. The abortion issue has proven to be a potent motivator in party primaries,” Nicholas said. But he added that it’s too early to speculate about how it could affect the Senate general election.
“I think if you’re Doug Jones, you are going to hope that the judiciary puts these bills on hold,” he said.
Democratic pollsters say Jones’ stance may boost his standing among women who view the Alabama law and new bans in other states as unconstitutional.
“This adds a new element that both fires up the Democratic base and makes a lot of the more middle-of-the-road Republicans feel very queasy about someone who supports this legislation,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster based in Alabama.
The Republican nominee will likely be pressed to support the abortion ban even if it may alienate potential voters, McCrary said.
‘A national issue’
Joshua C. Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver, also suspects the GOP push for abortion restrictions could help Democrats.
“I see red states as trying to outdo one another by who can get the most restrictive abortion law. It’s going to make it into a national issue,” said Wilson, an abortion policy expert. “It stands to benefit Democrats, because Republicans have already been mobilized.”
Wilson said national polling usually finds that only small numbers of people vote solely on abortion.
“People don’t get alarmed by incremental changes,” Wilson said. “When you are going as far as Alabama is going, you are going as far as to mobilize the ‘mushy middle’ to actually care about abortion.”
Jones himself often — but not always — backs positions pushed by abortion rights groups. While he opposed Republican efforts to ban abortion at 20 weeks during a Senate vote last year and another bill that would permanently prohibit federal funding for abortion, he was one of only three Democrats who voted to support legislation that Republicans argue would provide additional protections to an infant who survives an abortion or attempted abortion.
Abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America gave the Alabama senator an 85 percent rating in 2018.
The Democratic National Committee launched a fundraising push Wednesday against the Alabama bill, calling it a “blatant attack against women and our health care.” It referenced efforts to elect “Democrats everywhere in 2019 and 2020, including states like Alabama.”
Groups that oppose abortion, such as the Susan B. Anthony List, have called Jones a “pro-abortion extremist” for previous votes including continuing funding for Planned Parenthood.
“More people consider themselves pro-life than pro-choice, but there is a big majority in the state that support very commonsense protections for abortion; certainly that would include rape, incest and the life of the mother,” said McCrary, the Alabama pollster.
Jones is one of the GOP’s top targets for defeat in the Senate. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his race Leans Republican.
McCrary and Wilson say it’s also important to consider Alabama’s voter demographics.
“When Doug Jones won, he had a massive turnout from black women, I believe. It actually makes me curious if abortion becomes another way to mobilize black women voters,” Wilson said.
Exit polling data from the 2017 special election found that 98 percent of black women — who make up 17 percent of the electorate — voted for Jones over Republican Roy Moore.
“This absolutely serves as a turnout mechanism for Democrats, period, certainly for elements of the African American vote as well,” McCrary said.
When Jones was elected in 2017, many Alabama voters were torn between supporting Moore, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct, and Jones, who supports abortion rights.
But in 2020, Republicans may have a different set of options with Rep. Bradley Byrne, state Rep. Arnold Mooney and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville tossing their names into the ring.
Alabama voters appeared split in a recent survey by Mason Dixon Polling and Strategy on whether Jones is doing a good job in office, with 45 percent supporting him and 44 percent opposed. However, when asked if they would prefer a Republican, 50 percent said yes.
Presidential hopefuls push back
Democratic concerns over the Alabama law and abortion access have risen to the national level, with a number of the Democratic presidential contenders criticizing the state legislature.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced a roundtable to be held Thursday in Atlanta to discuss a Georgia law signed last week that would ban abortion after six weeks. Last week, she released a reproductive rights platform that includes a pledge to nominate only judges who would uphold the Roe v. Wade precedent.
Pete Buttigieg used the state legislation to motivate contributors Wednesday morning.
“Alabama just passed a cruel attack on women’s health, autonomy, and freedom, and last week, Georgia enacted a ban on abortions before most women even know they are pregnant,” the South Bend, Indiana, mayor wrote in an email that urged supporters to donate to NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Meanwhile, Republicans are seeking to paint Democrats as out of touch.
“As a growing number of Democrats adopt radical positions like infanticide, the Republican Party has and will always be the party of life,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Cassie Smedile said.