Arizona ruling puts abortion at center of 2024 presidential election

By Joseph Ax and Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) -Democrats wasted little time capitalizing on Tuesday’s ruling from Arizona’s high court upholding a 160-year-old abortion ban, organizing press conferences in swing states across the country and blaming former Republican President Donald Trump for eliminating a nationwide right to abortion.

The decision from the conservative Arizona Supreme Court sent a shockwave through the battleground state, which is poised to play a pivotal role in November’s presidential election while also hosting one of the country’s most high-profile Senate races.

Strategists in both parties said the ruling outlawing nearly all abortions would push moderate voters, even Republican-leaning ones, toward Democrats, while also mobilizing young voters and voters of color. President Joe Biden beat Trump in Arizona by a margin of less than 11,000 votes out of 3.3 million ballots cast in 2020.

“This was an earthquake of epic proportions in Arizona politics,” said Barrett Marson, a Phoenix-based Republican strategist. “Anytime Republicans are talking about abortion, they’re losing. Now, I think the only issue is going to be abortion.”

Trump, seeking to distance himself from the ruling, said on Wednesday that the court had gone too far, even while defending the U.S. Supreme Court decision that permitted states to restrict abortion. He called on the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic governor to amend the law.

“As you know, it’s all about states’ rights – that’ll be straightened out,” the Republican presidential candidate told reporters in Atlanta ahead of a local fundraiser. “And I’m sure that the governor and everybody else are going to bring it back into reason, and that will be taken care of I think very quickly.”

Republicans in the Arizona statehouse shut down a Democratic effort to throw out the 1864 law on Wednesday. The legislature’s Republican leaders urged patience, noting the law would not take effect for weeks and saying they would use that time to listen to voter concerns.

Democratic state Senator Anna Hernandez, whose motion to repeal the law was met by a Republican gavel to adjourn the session, vowed that reviving the ban would backfire politically on Republicans.

Jen Cox, senior advisor for President Joe Biden’s campaign in Arizona, said the ruling should be laid squarely at Trump’s feet.

“What’s happening in Arizona is only possible because Donald Trump overturned Roe v. Wade – it’s cruel and it’s a direct threat to our health and freedoms,” she said.

Democrats have made clear their intention to put abortion front and center in November, two years after the Supreme Court – powered by a conservative majority that Trump installed – overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and ruled that abortion was not constitutionally protected.

That decision galvanized Democratic voters and was widely credited with helping the party over-perform in the 2022 congressional midterm election.

Reproductive rights advocates are working to put a ballot measure before voters in November that would enshrine abortion protections into the Arizona state constitution. Organizers say they have already gathered the signatures needed to qualify the referendum for the ballot.

The campaign behind the ballot initiative, Arizona for Abortion Access, received a deluge of messages from residents asking how to help in the wake of Tuesday’s ruling, crashing its website, spokesperson Dawn Penich said.

DEMOCRATS ON OFFENSE

Trump had attempted to neutralize the issue on Monday, saying abortion rights should be left up to individual states and reiterating his support for exceptions in cases of rape, incest and threats to the mother’s life.

A day later, the Arizona Supreme Court threw out the state’s 15-week limit in favor of an 1864 law that predates Arizonan statehood and bans abortions except when needed to save the mother’s life.

“He said, ‘Throw it to the states,'” Marson said. “Well, look what happened.”

Following the ruling, Democrats held press events focused on reproductive rights in Arizona as well as other battleground states Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Arizona on Friday, the White House said.

The Biden campaign also bumped up its spending in Arizona on a searing advertisement released on Monday, in which a Texas woman tearfully describes almost dying after she was denied an abortion following a miscarriage. Across a black screen, the words “Donald Trump did this” flash as her sobs continue in the background.

Asked at the White House on Wednesday what he would say to the people of Arizona, Biden replied, “Elect me.”

Gunner Ramer, the political director for the anti-Trump Republican Accountability political action committee, said the ruling would bolster Democratic efforts to portray Republicans as too extreme.

“This presents a great opportunity for Biden to go on offense against Trump,” he said.

In a sign of how damaging the issue has become for Republicans, Kari Lake, the Republican frontrunner for the Arizona Senate race, disavowed the law, even though she called the 1864 ban a “great law” during her unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2022.

Her likely Democratic opponent, U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego, called Lake an “extremist” and blamed her and other similar Republicans for the ban.

State statistics show there were 11,407 abortions performed in Arizona in 2022, the latest year for which data was available. About half were done surgically and half through medication; both methods will soon be outlawed. More than 90% were done before 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Nearly 45% of abortions were given to Hispanic or Latino women, according to state data.

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