abortion is a winning issue for national dems in these southern states its more complicated

From left: Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley (D), Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) and former Louisiana Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: AP, Getty Images

Crimson MacDonald could die if she gets pregnant. The chair of Kentucky’s Campbell County Democratic Party suffered a ruptured uterus while delivering her second child in 2017, requiring emergency surgery and multiple blood transfusions to save her life.

Six years later, and one year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the national right to abortion as it ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, MacDonald is taking extra care to avoid getting pregnant again. She doesn’t want to have to plead her case to the state’s medical bureaucracy that an unintended pregnancy would endanger her life and thus entitle her to a rare exception to Kentucky’s ban on abortion in all other cases.

“It’s horrifying,” MacDonald said of the prospect of dealing with another pregnancy. “It’s absolutely horrifying.”

The irony in all this is that MacDonald doesn’t even live in a through-and-through red state, where anti-abortion Republicans fully control the state’s government. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a self-described “pro-choice” Democrat, has held office since 2019 and is running for a second term this November. Beshear supports allowing elective abortions early in pregnancy and has pushed for adding exemptions from the ban for survivors of rape or incest, and in cases of fetal abnormalities.

In the wake of the Dobbs decision in June 2022, Democrats across the country have embraced the fight for abortion rights as a kind of political kryptonite, capable of neutralizing Republicans in elections where the odds would otherwise be against President Joe Biden’s party. In November, Democrats outperformed expectations in the House and held on to the Senate, largely thanks to women voters who mobilized against abortion restrictions. In battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona, statewide candidates won their elections on promises to protect or reinstate abortion rights. And on Tuesday, the last anti-abortion Democrat in the Virginia state Senate lost to a pro-choice primary challenger.

As the country moves closer to the 2024 election cycle, the issue is likely to be key for Democrats, who at the national level strongly support abortion rights. In Biden’s video launching his bid for reelection in April, he indicated reproductive choice would be a major issue for his campaign and criticized “MAGA extremists … dictating what health care decisions women can make.”

But in some Southern states, the combination of a veto-proof Republican majority in state legislatures and a general lack of cultural and political motivation means that abortion rights are less straightforward for Democrats running for the states’ highest office. The electorate in those states is, at the very least, more hostile to abortion rights than in the country as a whole. And often in the South, as with gun rights, a candidate’s position on abortion becomes a proxy for whether they are in touch with local values. MacDonald said she just takes it as a given that the majority of her neighbors oppose abortion, aside from cases of rape and incest.

“The reality is that most people in Kentucky are pro-life,” she said. A 2020 Pew survey found that only 36% of Kentuckians said abortion should be legal in “all/most cases,” compared with 61% of Americans nationwide.

As a result, Democrats would just as soon focus on issues in which they have greater influence and are less likely to alienate persuadable voters with more conservative social views.

“I don’t think any voter should realistically expect much from Beshear on the abortion issue,” said D. Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky, who grew up in Louisiana. “There’s just very little the governor can do in this context.”

Along with Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi also have competitive gubernatorial elections in November, with Democrats set to invest millions in efforts to hold the executive post in Kentucky and Louisiana and to capture it in Mississippi for the first time since 2000. In addition to Beshear, former Louisiana Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson is vying to succeed outgoing Louisiana Gov. Jon Bel Edwards (D), while Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley (D) is seeking to unseat scandal-plagued Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R).

“For any candidate, not speaking directly and clearly about abortion is a losing strategy. This is especially true for Democratic candidates.”

– Jessica Herrera, Supermajority

It also sets up something of a test measuring how far the Democratic line on abortion rights may flex in areas that have trended conservative on reproductive rights but are simultaneously in the most dire need. All three states are also part of the nation’s post-Roe v. Wade abortion desert, a huge swath of the country in which multiple states have severely restricted abortion rights, meaning patients in need of care often must cross state lines multiple times to get to a state where they can access abortion.

Beshear and Wilson, who are open about their desire to sign legislation protecting abortion in cases of rape and incest, are not exactly screaming it from the hilltops. The candidates do not evade questions about abortion when asked, but they are not planning to spend money informing voters about their views on the topic in TV advertisements and other paid communication. They instead prefer to talk about protecting Medicaid expansion and increasing funding for education and public safety.

That is, of course, in cases where the Democratic candidates even support liberalizing abortion law. In Mississippi, where the complete ban includes a narrowly worded exception for rape survivors, Presley, who calls himself a “pro-life” Democrat, has declared he’s satisfied with current law.

“For any of these candidates, likely they ought to campaign on abortion by proxy,” letting allied abortion rights groups pitch the candidates to pro-choice voters, Voss said. “Maybe to a degree using dog whistles rather than placing it so in the center of their campaigns.”

To the extent that candidates like Beshear discuss abortion, keeping the focus on their opponents’ support for unpopular, no-exception bans is a safer bet than campaigning for a broader expansion of abortion rights, according to Voss.

“Voters tend to have a sort of buyer’s remorse response to policy changes,” Voss said. “And right now we’re in a sort of backlash against pro-life policy victories.”

Some abortion rights advocates, however, believe that Democrats who soft-pedal the issue are failing their state’s most vulnerable families and squandering a cause that has proved to be a political winner in unexpected places following the Dobbs decision’s reversal of Roe.

“For any candidate, not speaking directly and clearly about abortion is a losing strategy. This is especially true for Democratic candidates,” said Jessica Herrera, an Arizona-based spokesperson for Supermajority, a group that leverages women voters to advocate for abortion rights and other policy priorities. “Voters are unwavering in their support for abortion access.”

Supporters of abortion rights in Kentucky call for a no vote on a constitutional amendment explicitly prohibiting abortion. The amendment failed at the ballot in November.

Supporters of abortion rights in Kentucky call for a no vote on a constitutional amendment explicitly prohibiting abortion. The amendment failed at the ballot in November.

The Kansas-Kentucky Consensus

When more than two-thirds of Kansas voters rejected an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in August, it was widely seen as a sign that Republicans had overestimated the popularity of their anti-abortion policies ― even in more conservative states.

In Kentucky, voters defeated a similar constitutional amendment in November. Abortion rights proponents won in both places by emphasizing the need to protect personal freedom from government overreach ― a theme that appeals to Democratic base voters as well as to a chunk of independents and Republicans. In Kentucky, the coalition Protect Kentucky Access, ran TV ads painting the amendment as another case of “politicians” trying to impose “mandates” that interfere with personal choices.

“While we as observers tend to assume in a red state that it leans one way or another, I think it is much more complicated than that,” said Ashley All, a senior adviser to Families United for Freedom, an abortion rights referendum group that played a key role in the Kansas and Kentucky referendums.

“The vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum oppose government interference in a private medical decision,” All added. “They oppose extreme bans on abortion, especially bans that do not have exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.”

But even Kentucky voters’ rejection of the anti-abortion constitutional amendment illustrated the inertia and pressure abortion rights proponents in the state were fighting against. Voters in Kentucky were already living under much stricter abortion restrictions than voters in Kansas, and they defeated the anti-abortion amendment by less than 5 percentage points, a much narrower vote than the 18-point margin in Kansas.

“He has a strategy just as we have our strategy.”

– Tamarra Wieder, Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates

“Kentucky voters, like voters in most states, fall somewhere between the Democratic position and the Republican position on abortion,” Voss said. “They typically support more restrictions than Democratic politicians do, but they’re bothered by the draconian limitations that Republicans support with the encouragement of pro-life activist groups.”

In 2019, then-Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) signed a suite of anti-abortion laws, including a “trigger” law that would ban abortion in the event that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The prohibition, which first took effect in June 2022 after the Dobbs decision, bars abortion at any time in a pregnancy, with the sole exception being cases in which the pregnant person’s life is in danger.

Beshear, who identifies as “pro-choice” but supports unspecified “reasonable restrictions” on abortions later in a pregnancy, unseated Bevin in 2019 with the backing of abortion rights groups. Throughout his tenure, Beshear has sought to contrast himself with Republicans by fighting them on the grounds where they are most vulnerable: their opposition to rape and incest exceptions.

In seeking a second term, Beshear mainly talks about abortion rights as a point of contrast with his Republican opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Cameron not only supports the no-exception trigger law, but as the state’s top attorney, he has defended it in court.

Kentucky’s abortion ban “expressed the view of the commonwealth as it related to how we’re going to protect life,” Cameron said at a news conference in November. “I continue to stand in support of that law and will continue to stand up for life.”

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D), left, talks to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) in 2019. Cameron, a defender of the state's abortion ban, is seeking to unseat Beshear.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D), left, talks to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) in 2019. Cameron, a defender of the state’s abortion ban, is seeking to unseat Beshear.
Bruce Schreiner/Associated Press

Cameron has touted his work defending the state’s abortion ban in at least one direct-mail item, as well as a TV ad, where he cites it as one among many examples of him taking on Beshear and Biden.

Beshear’s campaign notes that before the trigger ban took effect, the youngest known abortion patients in Kentucky were 9 years old. Two such girls underwent the procedure in 2021 and 2022, according to official data published by the Louisville Courier Journal.

“Daniel Cameron believes that a nine-year-old rape victim who becomes pregnant should be forced to carry the pregnancy to term and give birth,” Alex Floyd, a spokesperson for Beshear’s reelection campaign, said in a statement. “He supports an extreme ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. Kentuckians rejected this extremism at the ballot box last November and they will again in this election.”

Some abortion rights advocates are cutting Beshear slack for not making abortion rights a more central part of his campaign.

“He has a strategy, just as we have our strategy,” said Tamarra Wieder, Kentucky state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, the reproductive health provider’s political and legislative arm, which has not yet endorsed in the gubernatorial race. “Of course, as someone working in reproductive rights, I would love for him to lean in. I know that it’s a winning issue.”

For MacDonald, the prospect of Cameron winning ― and either using his office to make medical exemptions harder to obtain or obstructing hypothetical progress on legislation creating exceptions for survivors of rape and incest ― is motivation enough to vote for Beshear.

“It can be worse,” she said. “And Daniel Cameron is exactly the pathway for that to happen.”

Former Louisiana Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson (D), left, is seeking to succeed Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), right. He has struck a more liberal tone than Edwards on abortion.

Former Louisiana Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson (D), left, is seeking to succeed Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), right. He has struck a more liberal tone than Edwards on abortion.
Melinda Deslatte/Associated Press

The ‘Pro-Life’ Democrats

Louisiana and Mississippi have abortion bans that are nearly identical to Kentucky’s, though Mississippi also allows the procedure in cases where a survivor of rape reports the crime to law enforcement. Even those Democratic candidates who are willing to stand behind the label of “pro-life,” though, seem to be trying to thread the needle.

Outgoing Louisiana Gov. Jon Bel Edwards, who identifies as a “pro-life” Democrat, signed the state’s near-total abortion ban in June 2022. Edwards, who is prohibited by term limits from running in 2024, said at the time that he objected to the law’s lack of exceptions for rape and incest but argued that vetoing it would allow Republicans to pass an even stricter law over his objections.

Shawn Wilson, a Democrat who served as Louisiana’s secretary of transportation and development under both Edwards and Edwards’ Republican predecessor, is using a decidedly different tone from Edwards when discussing abortion rights as he runs for the governorship.

In a statement, Wilson said that he is personally “pro-life.” But without adopting the term “pro-choice,” Wilson also said that “bureaucrats should not be overriding private and difficult decisions best made by women, families and their doctors.”

“At the same time, I believe there should be common-sense limitations that bring us closer to Louisiana’s laws before the trigger ban laws took effect after the Dobbs decision,” he said, referencing Louisiana’s pre-Dobbs prohibition on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

But in an effort to reach a “compromise,” Wilson said that as governor, he would prioritize “clarifying existing laws and including exceptions for rape and incest, fetal abnormalities, medical complications and related issues.”

Wilson is nonetheless unlikely to discuss his abortion stance in advertising or other paid communications, according to his campaign. He is instead focusing primarily on defending the state’s Medicaid expansion and continuing to adequately fund schools and law enforcement.

“There’s a price of admission you have to clear with voters to show that you share their core values – that you are something other than a paint-by-numbers, cookie-cutter national Democrat.”

– Zac McCrary, Democratic pollster

Presley in Mississippi is the most anti-abortion of the three states’ Democratic gubernatorial candidates. He identifies as “pro-life,” which he has been advertising to voters since at least 2007, when he first ran for the state’s public service commission, a body that regulates utility companies. That’s also the year that Mississippi’s “trigger” law banning abortion was passed, although it was barred from taking effect until the Dobbs decision.

While Presley says he supports Mississippi’s existing abortion ban, which does not have an exception for incest, he emphasizes that he personally supports exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the person who is pregnant.

Presley is most in his element, however, challenging self-described “pro-life” Republicans who oppose Medicaid expansion and other programs that support children once they are born. He is running against Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, whose approval rating has sunk amid the uproar over a scandal involving the diversion of poverty relief funds to sports facilities during the tenure of his predecessor, Phil Bryant. (Reeves was lieutenant governor at the time.)

“Being pro-life is not only about protecting the unborn, and I’m for that,” Presley said in a speech last July. “But it’s also caring about the ones that are born, that are here, that are suffering in a rural community today in the grips of addiction.”

Asked for a statement about his abortion views and the role they would play in the race, Presley’s campaign provided a statement entirely about Reeves’ welfare funding scandal and his “failed record on health care.”

Zac McCrary, who is doing both Presley’s and Wilson’s polling, described the “pro-life” label as one way ― albeit not the only way ― of distinguishing oneself from national Democrats and creating a permission structure for voters with conservative social views to consider a candidate they might otherwise preclude.

“There’s a price of admission you have to clear with voters to show that you share their core values – that you are something other than a paint-by-numbers, cookie-cutter national Democrat,” said McCrary, who grew up in Alabama.

Democrat Brandon Presley meets with supporters in Grenada, Mississippi, in April. Presley has said he would not seek to change Mississippi's abortion ban.

Democrat Brandon Presley meets with supporters in Grenada, Mississippi, in April. Presley has said he would not seek to change Mississippi’s abortion ban.
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

A large plurality (48%) of Mississippians believe that the “state has the right to some restrictions on abortion,” compared with 18% who think it should always be illegal and 31% who think it should always be legal, according to a June-July 2022 poll conducted by the ACLU of Mississippi.

Supermajority’s Herrera encouraged Presley to take a page out of Wilson’s book ― and proactively advocate for expanding abortion access.

“Mississippi is where the Dobbs case originated,” she said, noting that Mississippi’s attorney general brought the lawsuit that led to a federal right being taken away. “I think that is not lost on voters.”

The question for voters in Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky who support abortion rights is why they should even cast a ballot if liberalizing abortion laws is such a remote possibility. But advocates say that something is better than nothing. “In states where there may be limited options to expand access at this point, we have to look at other ways to support and help women,” said All from Families United for Freedom.

In some cases, supporting other kinds of health care access is the most practical solution. For example, in Mississippi, expanding Medicaid would at least give low-income pregnant people, who are barred from getting abortions, the chance to get the pregnancy-related medical care that they need.

Wieder, the leader of Kentucky’s branch of the Planned Parenthood Allied Advocates, is putting her faith in the courts to force modest changes in the state’s abortion ban.

“We have incredibly brilliant legal minds working on this right now,” Wieder said. “And I know that we will find a way to bring back some modicum of access.”

“This is a long game. The more wins we get, [the more] we will be able to turn the tide.”

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