How claims about a federal abortion ban are roiling one state as the midterms near

By: - October 29, 2022 7:00 am

U.S. Senate candidate Don Bolduc, a Republican, and Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan debate at NHPR’s studio in Concord, N.H., on Thursday. (Zoey Knox/NHPR)

WILMOT, New Hampshire — Voters in this swing state are among the relatively few Americans who will decide control of Congress during November’s midterm elections, shaping domestic and foreign policy for the next two years and delivering a verdict on Joe Biden’s presidency.

Granite Staters interviewed by States Newsroom, during a mid-October week trailing U.S. Senate and House candidates at stops in strip malls and diners, are focused on the stark rise in inflation, especially the cost of energy — as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end the nationwide, constitutional right to abortion.

The two issues and more will come to a head on Nov. 8 when New Hampshire voters will decide whether to keep their four-member congressional delegation entirely blue or add some red to the mix. Along with voters in other states with close contests like Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the ballots they cast will determine whether Democrats continue their narrow control of a 50-50 U.S. Senate.

In New Hampshire, the choice when it comes to reproductive rights is particularly stark in the U.S. Senate battle, where Democratic incumbent and former Gov. Maggie Hassan is attempting to secure reelection against GOP nominee Don Bolduc.

New Hampshire Republican U.S. Senate candidate Don Bolduc (left), with Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for the Trump administration, during a campaign stop at the Rochester GOP headquarters on Oct. 18. (Jennifer Shutt/ States Newsroom)

Bolduc is seeking to narrow the gap in the last days of the campaign, in part by saying he won’t back a national abortion ban and incorrectly claiming Congress will have no role in legislating on abortion. Hassan disputes that assertion and says Bolduc can’t be trusted on reproductive rights given his past opposition to abortion and statements he’s made.

How much abortion factors into voters’ decisions remains unclear as Nov. 8 approaches. Nationally, a Pew Research Center poll from mid-October shows the top five issues that are “very important” to voters this year are the economy, the future of democracy in the United States, education, health care, and energy policy.

Abortion ranked ninth on the list with 56% of registered voters surveyed saying it’s “very important” to them heading into the midterm elections. That number is spread between the political parties, however, with 75% of registered Democrats and 30% of registered Republicans saying the issue is very important in determining how they’ll vote.

Hassan, who defeated Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte by a slender 1,017 votes in 2016, is up by 3.6 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics. She also has a distinct cash advantage, with $4.8 million in her campaign war chest at the end of September, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Bolduc had less than $770,000 on hand and took a hit when the Senate Leadership Fund, the Republican super-PAC aligned with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, pulled its ad dollars from the state.

Federal abortion ban

During a debate before the Mt. Washington Valley Economic Council on Oct. 18, and during a Q and A with reporters later in the day at a campaign stop in Rochester, Bolduc said he wouldn’t support a federal abortion ban and that he didn’t want the issue addressed by a national law.

“The Supreme Court said it’s a state issue. Our state has a law. That’s what I support. I will not support any federal bans,” he told reporters in the basement of the Rochester GOP.

Bolduc claimed that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer didn’t overturn Roe v. Wade. He also said the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization “only” sent the issue back to the states, which isn’t entirely true.

“So the role of the U.S. Senate and the federal government is not to be involved. And that’s what the Dobbs decision did. It didn’t reverse Roe v. Wade,” Bolduc said during the debate, before alleging Hassan should know the Supreme Court “only moved it down to the state level.”

The U.S. Supreme Court held in its ruling in late June that “The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”

That decision didn’t allow only state legislatures to enact new abortion laws, but opened the door to federal legislation as well, since Congress consists of elected representatives.

Bolduc has tried to imply the issue cannot be taken up at the federal level under the Supreme Court’s ruling. Yet GOP members of Congress have been racing to introduce legislation.

House Republican leaders said in September they’ll pass abortion legislation if they regain control of the chamber following the midterm elections and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a 15-week nationwide abortion ban in September, five weeks shorter than the 20-week ban he introduced during the last Congress that garnered 47 co-sponsors.

Hassan, during an interview with States Newsroom following campaign stops on Oct. 19, said voters cannot trust Bolduc on the issue of reproductive rights, especially after statements he made during the primary.

Bolduc has called New Hampshire’s 24-week abortion law too lax, said people should “rejoice” after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this summer, and said he would “always default for a system that protects lives from beginning to end,” according to NHPR.

“His position is very clear. There is absolutely nothing in his record to support his current claims,” Hassan said.

“What his record supports is that he would be a yes vote for a nationwide abortion ban — something Republicans in Washington have clearly been working to pursue for decades, including making sure there were new Supreme Court justices, who in their confirmation hearings said that they would respect precedent and then clearly didn’t when they got into the position of power they have,” she said.

U.S. House races

The Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion is also coming up in New Hampshire’s two races for the U.S. House as Democratic Reps. Annie Kuster, first elected in 2012 in the 2nd Congressional District, and Chris Pappas, seeking his third term in the 1st, face GOP challengers.

Karoline Leavitt, the GOP nominee challenging Pappas and a former staffer in the Trump White House, said during a debate last week that she “will not support a federal ban on abortion.”

Her campaign website, however, says she “will be a fearless pro-life advocate to defend the lives of the unborn and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

During the debate, Leavitt said she supported New Hampshire’s existing abortion law, which allows abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions later for a fatal diagnosis for the fetus or the life of the pregnant patient. The law requires at least one parent to be notified 48 hours before an abortion can be performed on someone under the age of 18.

“I support our New Hampshire law. I support where it stands. I support the people who signed that law,” Leavitt said. “And despite all of the ads to the contrary — that have no evidence to say — I will not support a federal ban on abortion. And I’ve been very clear on that.”

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan (left), U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, New York U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, and U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas attend a North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters labor organizing event in Manchester, N.H., on Oct. 22. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

Pappas said he supports legislation that would ensure women across the country have abortion access, pointing to his vote for the so-called Women’s Health Protection Act, which the House passed 219-210 earlier this year.

The bill would have prevented restrictions on abortion access before viability, typically 22 to 24 weeks into a pregnancy, which was the standard under the 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood ruling that upheld the constitutional right to an abortion until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision this summer.

After a pregnancy reaches that thresholds, the U.S. House bill said governments couldn’t restrict abortion access when “in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”

Kuster also voted for the bill and Hassan voted for a similar measure in the Senate, although neither was able to get past the Senate’s 60-vote legislative filibuster amid Republican opposition.

During a roundtable on abortion rights with three state senators in Nashua on Oct. 21, Kuster said reproductive rights access and issues about the economy aren’t separate, but tied together.

“I think families just want to have control, right? They just want to manage their life decisions so that they can have a family when they’re ready, when they can afford it, when they can provide,” Kuster said.

During an interview after the roundtable, Kuster said Democrats are talking about both inflation and abortion ahead of the midterms, just differently than many GOP candidates.

“It’s not that we don’t want to talk about both, it’s that you can’t talk about one without the other,” she said.

Kuster added that Republicans often talk about abortion as if it’s “isolated from life,” a choice she said doesn’t often reflect how people decide when and how to have children.

The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter rates the Kuster and Hassan reelection bids as lean Democrat, although Pappas’ bid is seen as one of the 32 toss-up campaigns that will determine control of the U.S. House.

Polling from Fabrizio, Lee & Associates/Impact Research conducted in early October and sponsored by AARP shows Kuster with a 10-point advantage over GOP challenger Robert Burns, but the Pappas-Leavitt race was much closer with 48% of those surveyed backing Pappas and 47% supporting Leavitt.

A survey from Emerson College Polling/WHDH 7 News put Hassan and Bolduc within the margin of error as well, with 48% of those polled saying they’d vote for Hassan, 45% supporting Bolduc and 4% undecided.

Voter voices

Voters throughout New Hampshire in interviews often cited the top national issues of inflation, abortion access, and energy costs as key to determining how they’ll vote on Nov. 8.

Bolduc supporters overwhelmingly said they were backing him in a bid to reduce inflation and bolster border security and because of his career in the U.S. military.

Martha Haley, from Dover, said she began supporting Bolduc in the 2020 Republican primary in his bid to challenge New Hampshire’s other Democratic senator, Jeanne Shaheen. Bolduc ultimately lost that GOP primary to Bryant “Corky” Messner, 43% to 51%.

“I’m just really pleased with his service to the country and his conservative values,” Haley said, noting the economy and border security are two of her top issues.

Haley said she was “pro-life” and that abortion and the Supreme Court’s decision weren’t factors for her this year.

Elaine Plante, also from Dover, said she decided to support Bolduc based on his policy proposals and because he is “the whole package.”

Plante said she believes Bolduc can help “turn the economy around” and increase security at the border while allowing “children to be children” in school. She also said she was frustrated with some of Hassan and Democrats’ campaign ads on abortion.

Inside the Rochester GOP headquarters a few minutes later, Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for the Trump administration, campaigned with Bolduc, encouraging supporters to think about inflation, crime, immigration, and opioid addiction when deciding how they’d vote this year.

“This race is going to come down to the wire,” Haley said. “But I think the shining star on election night is going to be the state of New Hampshire, and it’s going to be because you’re going to put Gen. Bolduc in that Senate seat.”

The next day, during a stop at Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery in Hanover, near the Vermont border, Hassan walked alongside the diner’s booths, talking with residents and out-of-town visitors.

Sitting in a front booth of the restaurant, just steps from Dartmouth College’s campus, Eloise Osmann, Dartmouth class of 2026, said that reproductive rights are an important issue for her, and she intends to switch her voting registration to New Hampshire.

When the leaked Supreme Court decision was published in May, Osmann said, she and her friends began talking about where they were planning to attend college and whether those states would continue to have the abortion access that had been around for five decades.

“Coming from Connecticut you’d always assumed your rights are there, but in other states — like my friends are going to schools in the South — you can’t just assume that in those states,” she said. “I think that’s something that’s very important to me.”

Dartmouth economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, who was also at the diner, said he expects New Hampshire voters will elect Hassan to another term, noting he’s seen the state skew towards the political left during the last two decades.

“Even though some of the presidential races have been relatively close, I just think in the end there’s a lot of people who vote Democrat here,” Sacerdote said. “And also she’s pretty middle of the road. It’s not like she’s extreme left, where she’s going to draw a lot of fire from people. Whereas her opponent is someone, I think, independents are not likely to gravitate to.”

Small business challenges

After meeting with diners, Hassan stood toward the back of Lou’s, talking with co-owners Cailin and Jarett Berke about the challenges they’ve faced during COVID-19 and amid rising inflation.

Jarett Berke said during an interview after the senator left for her next campaign stop that he’s “certainly thinking about inflation and infrastructure” as well as workforce development and health care costs heading toward Election Day.

“Small business owners bear an enormous weight to pay for health care. And unfortunately, even though we pay for 70% of our premiums, which is better than a lot of big companies, we still have a lot of people that choose not to get health insurance. And that’s concerning,” Jarett Berke said.

Both Cailin and Jarett Berke said they’re also thinking about “some personal things” in determining how they’ll vote this year that are outside the scope of their role as “politically neutral” business owners.

But as New Hampshire voters mull their choices, the Supreme Court’s decision remains a central component of Democrats’ and President Joe Biden’s campaign message.

Just recently, Biden told supporters at a Democratic National Committee event at the historic Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., that if the party can hold onto the U.S. House and pick up seats in the U.S. Senate he’ll push Congress to ensure abortion access nationwide.

“The first bill that I will send to the Congress will be to codify Roe v. Wade. And when Congress passes it, I’ll sign it in January, 50 years after Roe was first decided the law of the land,” Biden said.

“And together, we’ll restore the right to choose for every woman in every state in America,” Biden added. “So, vote. You got to get out the vote.”

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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