DENVER — The anxious-looking women talk directly to the camera, warning that the Colorado Republican running for the U.S. Senate opposes the state’s reproductive rights law and supports the conservative Supreme Court justices who revoked the constitutional right to abortion this summer.
“It’s not even close,” one says as the ad for the incumbent Democratic senator wraps up. “We need Michael Bennet fighting for us.”
The spot is significant because the man it slams on abortion, businessman Joe O’Dea, is a rare Republican supporter of at least some abortion rights. O’Dea said he would back a law to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade, though he opposes abortions after 20 weeks except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother.
Analysts say similarly nuanced positions were once considered the political sweet spot in the complex world of abortion politics, coming closest to representing the views of the typical, conflicted voter. But that may be changing as abortion restrictions kick in following the fall of Roe with the high court’s ruling in June.
“We are here in this country, right now, with patients traveling thousands of miles for care because politicians have been given the room for the least little bit of nuance,” said Adrienne Mansanares of Planned Parenthood Action Colorado during a recent news conference to back Bennet.
The message from Democrats: Republicans can’t be trusted on the issue — regardless of their personal beliefs.
In New Hampshire, Democrats are attacking Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who is running for reelection as a self-described “pro choice governor,” for supporting a ban on abortions after 23 weeks of pregnancy. In Connecticut, Democrats slammed as “extreme” former state Sen. George Logan in his race against Democratic U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes — despite Logan receiving an A rating in 2017 and 2018 from the Connecticut chapter of NARAL, an abortion rights group.
Also in Connecticut, the Republican candidate for governor, Bob Stefanowski, has launched a television ad highlighting how he and his Democratic opponent “are both pro-choice.” In an interview, Stefanowski said he was responding to repeated Democratic attacks on abortion, which he compared to lies.
“I don’t know how many times I can say I’m not going to change Connecticut law,” Stefanowski said in an interview. “I’m going to support a woman’s right to choose.”
Abortion has become an increasingly partisan issue over recent decades, but public views have always been more shades of gray than black and white.
Typically, support for abortion rights is highest for women in the earliest stages of pregnancy and tapers off as the pregnancy advances, until it is lowest for abortions very close to delivery, said Jocelyn Kiley of the Pew Research Center. Still, exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother are popular at all stages.
“Most Americans see this as a nuanced issue and not legal all the time or illegal all the time,” Kiley said. But, she noted, “it’s possible that Americans’ underlying opinions about this are shifting in the past couple of months.”
On June 24, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority overturned Roe and triggered abortion bans in at least 13 states, many of which don’t provide exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.
The reason this is happening, said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, is “you now have state legislatures that have taken positions opposed by 9 out of 10 Americans.”
“What the Dobbs decision has done along with these trigger laws is focus attention on the early part of pregnancy, not late term,” Ayres said.
While many Americans back some restrictions on abortion, especially after the first trimester, the most extreme measures introduced in some Republican-led states are at odds with public opinion, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in July.
There are several signs that momentum is with abortion-rights backers. In conservative Kansas, a ballot measure to remove that state’s right to abortion lost by more than 150,000 votes. Democrats won a special election in a narrowly divided upstate New York swing district last week after their candidate focused on abortion. In a survey shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, Pew found that 62% of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, the highest share in nearly 30 years of tracking the issue.
That’s emboldened Democrats to go after any Republican on abortion, regardless of the details of their position, said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia who has long tracked the politics of reproductive health.
“Although the nuance on the issue is largely gone, the nuance of the case Democrats can make is stronger,” Lawless said.
She noted that Democrats can now make the more technical argument that any Republican elected increases the power of the party that overturned Roe and could spread abortion bans further across the country.
That’s an argument Colorado Democrats have tried to make, unsuccessfully, before. In 2014, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall lost his race to Republican Cory Gardner, an abortion rights opponent who defused the issue by backing over-the-counter women’s contraception to demonstrate he wasn’t hostile to reproductive health.
Gardner’s backers mocked Udall as “Mark Uterus” for hammering relentlessly on abortion and assured voters that Roe wasn’t at risk. He lost his reelection bid in 2020, when Colorado voters replaced him with a Democrat supporting abortion rights after President Donald Trump appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the deciding vote in Dobbs, in the campaign’s final weeks.
Now Democrats are trying again with O’Dea. In an interview, the first-time candidate said of his opponent’s attack: “It’s pretty dishonest, pretty disingenuous.”
Yet in 2020, O’Dea voted for a statewide ballot measure to bar abortions after 22 weeks that failed by 18 percentage points. The measure didn’t contain exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the mother’s life. He now says he thinks those exceptions are essential and added that he would support allowing the termination of nonviable pregnancies.
He noted he wasn’t a candidate for office when the measure was on the ballot.
“I didn’t look at all the nuances,” O’Dea said.
Colorado has a long history of backing abortion rights. It was the first state to legalize the procedure in cases of rape, incest and to protect the mother, taking that step in 1967. Earlier this year, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed one of the most sweeping laws protecting abortion rights, guaranteeing no restrictions on abortions regardless of when in the pregnancy they occur. O’Dea opposes that law because of his belief that abortions should be outlawed past 20 weeks.
The race is playing out as Colorado has become a refuge for women seeking care after the Dobbs decision activated trigger laws in nearby states, especially Texas.
Karen Middleton, a former Democratic state lawmaker who runs the reproductive rights group Cobalt, recalled in an interview talking to a woman with an ectopic pregnancy driving hundreds of miles from Texas to Colorado to obtain an abortion who began bleeding in a remote area between the states.
“We’re a lot less willing to compromise,” she said.
Haigh reported from Hartford, Conn.