With the midterms less than a week away, the fund-raising arms race continues on both sides of the abortion debate fueled by women and groups fired up over Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Abortion-rights organizations have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars this cycle, extraordinarily high levels for midterms. These groups are wagering that capitalizing on women’s outrage over Kavanaugh, who was accused by three women of sexual misconduct before his controversial confirmation, will prove a winning strategy for federal and state candidates promising to defend reproductive rights.
At stake, they say, are many different federal and state proposed or recently passed laws that either restrict abortion access or could potentially find their way to the Supreme Court, where a now-conservative majority could reverse Roe v. Wade and upend federal abortion-rights protections.
A recent Public Policy Polling poll commissioned by NARAL Pro-Choice America found that 52 percent of suburban women in swing districts in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, New York, Texas, and Virginia said they are more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supports “reproductive freedom” (defined to encompass abortion access), including 72 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents.
The poll also found that 45 percent of women polled believe Kavanaugh will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s a belief — and for many, a fear — that Kavanaugh has not been able to quell with his public statements about the landmark 1973 decision. Even though during confirmation hearings Kavanaugh testified that Roe v. Wade is “settled as precedent of the Supreme Court” and “has been reaffirmed many times,” in a secret email from 2003, obtained by The New York Times, Kavanaugh questioned the assertion that Roe is settled law.
“If the American people got a vote, Brett Kavanaugh would be nowhere near the Supreme Court,” Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood’s super PAC, Planned Parenthood Votes, said by email. “In the midterm elections … we’ll send a clear message to those in power that if you vote against our rights, you’re going to lose your job.”
A crowdfunding campaign ahead of Kavanaugh’s confirmation pledged to donate more than $1.4 million to Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ 2020 opponent if she voted to confirm the judge. In the weeks since Collins — one of few Senate Republicans who support abortion rights — voted for his confirmation, that number has hit nearly $3.8 million.
This past spring, the political spending groups associated with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which represents the largest network of abortion and reproductive-health clinics in the country, pledged to spend more than $20 million on key races — which Planned Parenthood says is its largest midterm investment in history. The organization spent $15 million on the 2014 midterms, according to NPR.
On a much smaller scale, other national reproductive-rights groups and their corresponding political arms, such as NARAL (pledging approximately $5 million across 19 states), are similarly investing funding and campaigning efforts. Leaders and organizers from reproductive rights groups told VICE News they’re seeing unprecedented midterm energy levels for abortion rights among key demographic groups, such as young people and suburban women, and that Kavanaugh’s confirmation has been a strong galvanizing point.
“We knew from the beginning that [Kavanaugh] was only on that short list of Trump’s picks because he was a surefire bet to gut Roe,” NARAL Deputy National Communications Director Amanda Thayer said, referring to Roe v. Wade, the 45-year-old Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion through fetal viability. “And now here we are. And our members are fired up, and they’re talking to people every day. We’re hearing stories about how tuned-in people were to the Kavanaugh fight — how they’re worried about the future of their children now that Kavanaugh’s on the court.”
Thayer said NARAL members recently made their one-millionth call to potential voters this year.
Among the states NARAL is heavily invested in is Iowa, where organizers like Des Moines native and NARAL Iowa Outreach Coordinator Chelsea Chism-Vargas has been knocking on doors, talking to potential voters about the controversial law Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed this year, making abortion illegal as early as six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy. It’s one of these state laws that is primed to challenge Roe and is already working its way through the courts. To her surprise, Chism-Vargas told VICE News, many Iowans can call out this bill by name, particularly women.
Anti-abortion groups, meanwhile, are also pouring money into the midterm races at the state and federal levels, emphasizing the opportunity to further limit abortion access that Kavanaugh presents. These groups have been pushing federal policies — such as defunding Planned Parenthood on a national level and passing a ban on abortion at 20 weeks — which would likely have no chance of passing if Republicans lose control of one or both houses. Also important to these advocates are the future federal judges that the Senate will be in charge of confirming — judges who will rule on the constitutionality of anti-abortion policies before they ever get to the high court.
The biggest spender on the opposite side of the abortion debate is the Susan B. Anthony List and its political arm, which have pledged to raise and spend nearly $25 million on the midterms, according to The New York Times. According to The Hill, the group raised more than $16 million during the 2014 midterms. The SBA List, which did not respond to requests for comment, has closely allied itself with the Trump administration. Its political action committee and super PAC, Women Speak Out PAC, have invested myriad resources in the midterms, desperate to hold on to Republican majorities in Congress, as well as in statewide races that will affect which state policies have a chance of successfully challenging Roe v. Wade before a favorable Supreme Court.
In a recent press statement, the SBA List claims to have already visited more than 2 million voters’ homes across eight battleground states: Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia.
In recent weeks, Women Speak Out PAC has plowed hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars in continued support of Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill — one of the tightest Senate races in this election, and one that has centered around abortion politics.
And both Planned Parenthood and the SBA List have invested heavily in Arizona’s open U.S. Senate race, between Democratic House Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and Republican House Rep. Martha McSally, another toss-up and another case where the candidates’ positions on health care and abortion have taken center stage.
Planned Parenthood’s advocacy and political arms have, according to Planned Parenthood spokesperson Benjamin Halle, strategically focused their mobilizing, canvassing, and advertising efforts on multiple tight national, statewide, and down-ticket races in 10 states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, concentrating largely on gubernatorial, U.S. Senate races, and several races that Planned Parenthood hopes will flip control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democratic Party.
In Ohio, for example, Planned Parenthood is mobilizing voters in a bid to unseat Republican governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich, whose administration has ushered in a bundle of laws restricting access to abortion and birth control, including a law that would have stripped family-planning funding from Planned Parenthood clinics for non-abortion-related health services, had a federal appeals court not ruled this law unconstitutional.
Halle said Planned Parenthood’s goal is to knock on 3 million doors and reach at least 4.5 million voters before Nov. 6. Planned Parenthood’s political arms have also partnered with the Win Justice coalition, as part of a multi-million-dollar effort to mobilize infrequent midterm voters — focusing on young people and people of color — in Florida, Michigan, and Nevada. Win Justice partners include Color of Change PAC, Center for Community Change Action, and the Service Employees International Union.
Like Planned Parenthood, NARAL is targeting a specific demographic — in this case, suburban women — and centering its messaging on a wide range of reproductive-health-care issues.
“These women are paying attention,” Chism-Vargas said, of the voters in Iowa. “A lot of the times when the issue of abortion access or just reproductive access in general comes up, the first thing that they do is they mention their daughters. … That just kind of shows that, especially with some of these young moms, that reproductive access is real for them, but, as well, they’re worried about what it’s going to look like for their children in this state, when their children become that age.”
Chism-Vargas counts herself among the worried.
“We’re scared of what’s going to come next,” she said, “and that’s why we’re still out here fighting.”
Cover: Demonstrators hold signs while participating in a national day of action rally against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Foley Square in New York on August 26, 2018. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)