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As high court mulls Roe v. Wade, Democrats and Republicans sharpen focus on legislative races

North Carolina Republicans and Democrats are pushing for voters to rally behind local candidates who could determine whether abortion restrictions are implemented.

Posted Updated

By
Bryan Anderson, WRAL state government reporter,
and
Laura Leslie, WRAL capitol bureau chief
RALEIGH, N.C. — As the U.S. Supreme Court weighs overturning a landmark abortion decision, Republicans and Democrats are seeking to make abortion a motivating issue in this year’s elections.

The high court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade made abortion legal nationwide during a woman’s first trimester of pregnancy. It also allowed states to pass regulations related to maternal health in the second trimester and outlaw the medical procedure almost entirely in the final trimester.

The overturning of that ruling, which was telegraphed Monday in a leaked draft opinion, would kick the issue back to states, enabling legislatures across the country to enact abortion bans or impose significant restrictions at all stages of pregnancy. In a state that is bitterly divided on the issue of abortion, North Carolina could be a battleground in the national debate.

With new legislative maps implemented this year and about 30 competitive seats up for grabs, state races will be crucial in determining how the issue is addressed. The outcome of a 2024 gubernatorial election could also set the agenda for reproductive rights in the state.

“The states will take on even more importance in determining access to abortion,” said Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist. “That’s a fact, but I’m not sure that’s a fact that voters know. What the parties are going to need to do is remind voters that their local state legislative election is now as important for abortion rights as the U.S. Senate election.”

Parties turn attention to legislative races

If Republican voters turn out in droves in November, the GOP could get veto-proof control of the legislature and enact new limits to abortion.

“This decision is going to be one that's going to motivate a lot of our voters to the polls because it really is going to take this issue from just being a federal issue to a state issue, and those state legislative majorities are really going to matter,” Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, said Wednesday in an interview with WRAL News.

Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to prevent Republicans from getting the votes needed to override vetoes from the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper.

State Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham County Democrat, warned during a Wednesday news conference that North Carolina could pass restrictive abortion measures like other states if voters don’t show up to the polls.

“If we do not elect pro-choice Democrats in November, North Carolina will become the next Texas,” Murdock said, referring to the state that last year passed a law barring abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

North Carolina’s governor has long been on the side of abortion-rights advocates. While he has at times been bucked by a handful of members of his own party on initial votes that would’ve limited access to the procedure, Democratic lawmakers have seldom voted to overrule his decisions.

GOP ‘unlikely’ to get full veto-proof majorities

A new state House voting map in place this year is more favorable to Democrats than the existing political boundaries, according to nonpartisan analyses. Election data shows Republicans are unlikely to get supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, though veto-proof control in the Senate is a more realistic possibility.

Using 2020 election results data, Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer identified 20 House races and nine Senate races that are both competitive and contested. Republicans would likely need a near-perfect showing to get veto-proof power in both chambers, according to the data.

If the seats likely to go to each party pan out as expected, Republicans would need to win 17 House contests and nine Senate contests, or 85% and 78% of the races, respectively.

When Republican lawmakers were ordered to redraw political boundaries in February, the new state House voting map passed with near universal support from Democrats, signaling a view that the plan was less likely to produce a GOP supermajority. No Democrat supported the state Senate map.

A review of 2020 election data from the John Locke Foundation, a conservative Raleigh think tank, found Republicans would need to win 80% of competitive House races and 73% of competitive Senate races.

Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University called the prospects of GOP supermajorities in both chambers "unlikely."

He thinks abortion rights could motivate enough Democrats to the polls to stifle what is widely seen as a highly favorable election cycle for Republicans across the country.

“This is going to be a good year to be a Republican,” Chris Cooper said. “Maybe what this [Supreme Court] decision does is blunt a little bit of the positive effect of being a Republican this year. … The odds are definitely against the Republicans getting a supermajority, but it’s certainly not impossible either.”

Mixed views in toss-ups

Among the most competitive seats are two House and two Senate districts in Wake County, two House and one Senate district in Nash County, one House race in Chatham County and one House seat in Cumberland County.

District 35, which covers northeastern Wake County and leans Democratic, is among those competitive districts. Interviews with voters in and near the district on Wednesday illustrated how divided and complex the issue is, and how that might require careful messaging by campaigns.

Bridgette Gathings, who lives in the district and cast her ballot on the first day of early in-person voting last week, said she is opposed to abortion but believes individuals should be able to make their own choices.

"I don't feel like we should be able to tell women what to do with their bodies, but at the same time, I'm not for abortion either," Gathings said. "I'm a Democrat, but I just don't believe in killing babies. It really doesn't matter to me one way or the other which way it goes [on the pending Supreme Court decision]. I don't want them to be able to tell people what to do, but at the same time, I do want to save a life."

Marcia Souza, a Raleigh Democrat who plans to vote in the primary, said state lawmakers shouldn't compel a woman to have a child. "I see it as a human, but my thing is I don't think it's right to take a woman's right," Souza said outside a northeast Raleigh grocery store. "She should be entitled to make decisions on her own body."

A Meredith College survey released Tuesday found that 53% of registered North Carolina voters want to see a law to expand or keep in place the current provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. Meanwhile, 39% of voters prefer a law that severely restricts access to abortion or makes it illegal in all circumstances.
A WRAL News online survey of North Carolina adults conducted from April 6 to 10 showed a plurality of respondents, 46%, wanting state lawmakers to lower or keep in place existing abortion laws, while 39% supported more restrictions or outlawing the medical procedure entirely.
2024 election could prove pivotal

Even if Republicans don’t gain supermajorities this year, the issue could become front and center in what is expected to be a highly contentious gubernatorial election between Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, who are expected to run for the office.

Stein on Monday tweeted his support for “a woman's right to reproductive health care,” adding that “it's her choice.”

Robinson has said he regrets a decision that he and his then-girlfriend made in 1989 to get an abortion. The couple later married and remains together today. Robinson said in a statement on Wednesday that the Supreme Court’s draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade should renew focus on state lawmakers to act.

“Here in North Carolina, it would be cause for work, not celebration,” Robinson said of the high court’s pending decision. “Currently in North Carolina, abortion is legal for any reason up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. This is unacceptable. That is why I am calling on the General Assembly to act. If the Supreme Court hands the power back to the states, it will be our duty to protect the life of the unborn.”

A federal appeals court last year ruled that North Carolina's ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy was unconstitutional. The 20-week ban, which a lower court struck down in 2019, was first passed in 1973.

Groups push to mobilize voters

As the policy debate escalates, advocacy groups are also seeking to inform voters of the heightened importance of local elections.

The North Carolina Values Coalition, which pushes for anti-abortion measures, said in a statement that it hopes the draft Supreme Court opinion leaked to Politico would soon be implemented.

“We must build consensus for the strongest protections possible for unborn children and women in North Carolina, and we are ready for this moment in history,” said Tami Fitzgerald, the coalition’s executive director.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which has long opposed anti-abortion proposals from state lawmakers, wants voters to stay engaged.

“If abortion is going to be left to the political process, those of us who care about women's equality and reproductive freedom have got to get engaged,” said Chantal Stevens, the organization’s executive director. “We need to vote like our rights depend on it because they do.”

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