When Americans think about the future of abortion, they often think of the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion nationwide in Roe v. Wade. But over the past decade, the real battle over abortion hasn’t been in Washington — it’s played out in statehouses across the country, where legislators have passed restriction after restriction on the procedure.
Now, abortion rights activists believe they have a unique chance to wrest back those state legislatures from abortion opponents. And though Election Day 2020 is still more than a year away, they’re already preparing.
In July, EMILY’s List announced that it would spend a record $20 million in the 2020 election cycle trying to elect women who support abortion rights to local and state offices. Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood said its super PAC will spend at least $45 million this cycle — the most money the group has ever spent in an election.
Those numbers might be eye-popping, but Roe’s survival has never been more uncertain. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an abortion-related case this year, giving the bench’s conservative majority a chance to hack away at the decision. Seven states passed laws this year to limit abortion at eight weeks or earlier; one of those states, Alabama, moved to ban almost all abortions.
While none of those restrictions are currently in effect, anti-abortion legislators are sure to push for more over the next year.
Whoever wins control of state legislative chambers in 2020 will also shape politics for the next decade. After the U.S. Census wraps up late next year, many state legislatures will start carving out new districts for their state and congressional representatives. This “redistricting” is theoretically meant to reflect a state’s changing population — but in reality, legislators have used it to draw districts that their party can easily win for years to come.
These new legislative maps are often passed as a bill, so whoever controls state governments by the end of Election Day 2020 will, effectively, control the maps.
The GOP has spent the past decade demonstrating just how critical that control can be. Electrified by the Tea Party and armed with an explicit plan to take over state legislatures, Republicans won more seats in 2010 than they had held since the Great Depression. They then rewrote states’ maps to lock their party into power.
Between 2010 and 2018, states enacted 424 abortion restrictions. That’s more than a third of all restrictions enacted since 1973, the year the Supreme Court decided Roe.
“This is our once-in-a-decade shot to fix what Republicans broke in 2010,” said Ianthe Metzger, deputy director of campaign communications for EMILY’s List. “All the state legislative elections between now and then have been important, but now we have a chance to make fairer maps and really just draw maps in a way that represents what voters want.”
Now, abortion rights activists are hoping that the renewed national spotlight on abortion rights, grassroots organizing, and an influsion of cash can tip in the balance in a few key states.
If Roe is overturned, states will once again decide the legality of abortion within their borders. For abortion rights activists, this election represents a chance to prepare for a post- Roe nation — to ensure their friends are in office should the worst happen.
Nine states still have abortion bans that date back to the days before Roe was decided. Arizona is one of them. And while its ban can’t be enforced while Roe lives, advocates fear Arizona could put it into action again if the decision is overturned.
“Right now, the law of the land in Arizona would make abortion illegal. Any individual that would need abortion care in our state would have to go to a neighboring state, like California,” said Lola Bovell, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.
Like everybody else at a Planned Parenthood organization who spoke with VICE News, Bovell wasn’t able to reveal how much money her organization may receive this cycle, or how exactly it will be used, though it will likely go toward ads, activities like door-knocking, and supporting candidates through political action committees associated with her group.
In 2018, when Planned Parenthood invested almost $30 million during the midterm elections, Bovell said Arizona ended up with about $2 million. That was also the year when Arizona Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat for the first time in decades, and came within three seats of majority in the state House. Bovell believes they can close the gap and flip the House in 2020. And she’s not alone: NARAL Pro-Choice America also believes it’s flippable, though the organization is still in the preliminary stages of organizing its 2020 state legislative operations.
“We’re not playing defense,” Bovell said. “We’re really on the offensive, in terms of making sure there’s proactive legislation going forward that supports reproduction freedom and reproductive justice.”
Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is deeply supportive of abortion rights. But since her election in 2018, she’s had to contend with a legislature controlled by Republicans who are anything but.
In May, Republicans in the legislature passed a bill to ban an abortion procedure known as a dilation and evacuation, or “D&E,” which is commonly used to end a second-trimester pregnancy. Whitmer has promised to veto the measure, but the powerful anti-abortion group Michigan Right to Life is collecting signatures to bring it back as a ballot initiative. Another organization is working on an initiative that would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — a law six states passed this year.
If they get enough signatures, a GOP-controlled legislature could take the initiative up and enact it. Michiganers must then vote on the resulting law, but the maneuver makes it veto-proof.
Every seat in Michigan’s House of Representatives is up for election this year. Both NARAL and EMILY’s List are also planning to invest in Michigan, which, like Arizona, has a pre-Roe ban on the books.
“We definitely want to make sure that [Whitmer] can have strong support in the legislature next cycle,” Metzger said.
The 2018 elections left the Minnesota as the only state legislature where Democrats control one chamber while Republicans hold the other. That divide has stymied abortion rights supporters and opponents alike, as neither side’s bills can pick up lasting traction. (Minnesota also has a Democratic governor.)
But a bill that would ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy still came within a handful of votes of passing the Democrat-dominated state House of Representatives — a development that spooked Tim Stanley, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund.
“That’s the one that I am watching the most closely and trying to get some intel on,” Stanley said. That bill could still get a hearing in the state Senate, where Democrats are four seats away from a majority.
Flipping the Senate is a “primary goal” for Minnesota’s Planned Parenthood, Stanley said; NARAL also thinks it’s flippable. If the groups succeed, Democrats will own both state chambers and the governor’s mansion, which will come in handy during redistricting. Minnesota’s state legislature runs that process.
However, Minnesota currently has a few Democratic senators who oppose abortion rights. “We need to compensate for those Democrats by electing more pro-choice members,” Stanley explained. “Working through which of those races that we’re going to target is still a work in progress, but we’re beginning to really finalize that analysis now.”
EMILY’s List has painted a target on North Carolina because its state legislators have final say over redistricting. Planned Parenthood is also dedicated to protecting Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has spent the past three years doing battle with the abortion foes in his state’s Republican-ruled legislature.
Cooper has vetoed anti-abortion legislation in the past; this year, he halted a bill that sought to protect babies born alive after an abortion. (This does not happen. Only 1.4% of abortions even take place during or after 21 weeks of pregnancy; pregnancies generally become viable at 24 weeks. And even if a baby was born after a botched abortion, a doctor would presumably rush to save it, given that infanticide is already illegal.)
Republicans tried to override that veto, but failed.
“We made so many gains in 2018 that the Democrats were able to stop that, so that state is a really big one for us” in 2020, Metzger said.
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged to veto any and all abortion restrictions, but that hasn’t stopped the Republican-controlled legislature from pushing for bills that would limit access to the procedure. This year, the state House of Representatives passed a bill to ban abortion after a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome; on Monday, legislators introduced a measure to outlaw the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy.
Wolf isn’t up for re-election this year, but seats in Pennsylvania’s Senate and House are. Ashley Lenker White, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates PAC, said the organization is still sorting out which races it wants to play in.
“We have many targets on our list and we’re looking at a number of races that we think are going to be competitive, as well as some incumbent protection plans. We’re really just going to build off of our 2018 work,” she said. That year, her group spent about $2.5 million, though Lenker White couldn’t say how much of that money came from Planned Parenthood’s national branches and how much was raised locally in Pennsylvania.
“We definitely need to continue the work to build legislative support for reproductive health care,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Minnesota governor’s veto record.
Cover: Abortion rights activist gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court to protest against the recent abortion laws passed across the country in recent weeks. Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Washington, D.C. (Photo by Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images)