With Roe endangered, governor races become battlegrounds in abortion debate

 Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file 2017

The place where the abortion debate is the most intense in America isn’t on Capitol Hill or in US Senate races, but in contests for governor.

Around the country, abortion is at the forefront, if not the leading issue, in many of the nation’s 36 races for governor this year.

Usually, such intense debates flare up only in presidential or US Senate races in the context of US Supreme Court picks, who are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by senators.

But with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the court in a few days and President Trump’s decision to replace him with Brett Kavanaugh, the conventional wisdom is that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling could be overturned.


Should Roe be overturned, it would send the question about whether abortion is legal back to the states, which have not had much leeway on the issue for four decades. That’s why whoever is governor in the next few years suddenly matters.

“Headlines about governors’ races all over the country are suddenly about abortion and it is a driving factor, particularly in primary contests that have yet to be held,” said Geoffrey Skelley, who analyzes gubernatorial races for the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball political website.

In Massachusetts, momentum quickly built this summer behind an effort to repeal a dormant law making abortion illegal. On Friday, Governor Charlie Baker signed the repeal. The timing was perfect for an abortion rights Republican running for reelection in an abortion rights state.

Things have been a lot more contentious in Rhode Island. Incumbent Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo, the state’s first female governor, is in a political fight with feminist leader Gloria Steinem, who is backing Raimondo’s Democratic primary opponent Matt Brown. The crux of the matter: that Raimondo wasn’t fighting hard enough on abortion rights. In the weeks since then, Raimondo has called for a special legislative session to put a law on the books that would ensure abortion will be available in Rhode Island.


Meanwhile, the Republicans running to replace Raimondo are also feuding over abortion, debating who has more backing from anti-abortion activists.

In New Hampshire, first-term incumbent Republican Chris Sununu says he’s for abortion rights. However, he was one of 31 governors who signed a letter this week backing Kavanaugh’s nomination to the court, where he could cast the key vote to overturn Roe.

Two Democrats are competing in a Sept. 11 primary to take on Sununu. One of them, former state senator Molly Kelly, issued a statement Thursday saying Sununu couldn’t “call himself ‘pro-choice’ and also support Brett Kavanaugh.”

The other, former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand, released a plan over a month ago that would codify abortion as a legal right, and would also support using taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions via Medicaid. The latter proposal has drawn heavy fire from Republicans.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, in the weeks leading up to the gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, the Democratic candidates released competing plans for what they would do if Roe is overturned.

In Kansas, the biggest reason the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, also on Tuesday, won’t win is his votes to restrict abortion as a legislator. He is running against two abortion-rights candidates who have consistently raised the issue.

“In many races, like in Kansas, the discussion about women’s health has been front and center,” said Julie McClain Downey, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, the abortion rights group that backs female candidates, which is supporting state senator Laura Kelly.


The rise of the abortion issue comes as a number of female Democratic candidates are seeing success in primaries. But not all are catching on. In Wisconsin, for example, the former state director for NARAL, the abortion rights advocacy group, is struggling to emerge from a crowded primary.

If there’s one state to watch this fall in the general election, it’s Iowa. There the field is already set, with the two candidates starkly defined by the abortion issue. Republican Governor Kim Reynolds boasts of passing the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. She is facing Fred Hubbell, who once chaired the state’s largest Planned Parenthood chapter.