Abortion at center of NH election campaign

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This story originally aired on WBUR on May 13, 2022.

US Senator Maggie Hassan and other prominent New Hampshire Democrats converged on Planned Parenthood at Concord earlier this week to sound the alarm on abortion rights.

Hassan is in a bitter fight for his re-election. And like similar races across the country, the campaign in New Hampshire, for now, has shifted from economics to abortion.

The change in tone followed the announcement this month of a proposed Supreme Court decision that suggests a majority of justices voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that gave Americans the constitutional right to abortion. If Roe falls, nearly half of the states would have to ban or severely limit access to abortion. And some warn that other states could follow suit and Congress could even try to erect a nationwide ban.

“We can’t let politicians – whether in Washington or Concord – deprive a woman of her freedom,” said Hassan, who pledges to protect abortion rights as part of his bid to re-election.

Republicans identified defeating Hassan early on as one of the keys to retaking the Senate in November and planned to focus voters on inflation, gas prices and other kitchen table topics for seal the deal.

But now, many Democrats are hoping the abortion debate might allow them to retain control of Congress at a time when President Biden’s popularity has plummeted and inflation has soared. National polls show most Americans support Roe v. Wade and want abortion to remain legal in at least some circumstances, which could help Democrats this fall.

“If this [draft] public opinion, the court would take away women’s rights – our rights to privacy, our rights to make our decisions about having children, rights that have been in place for over 50 years,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, senior senator from New Hampshire.

Protesters gathered across the state to express concern over the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade. Here in Portsmouth Market Square.

But abortion opponents in New Hampshire say the prospect of unseating Roe has also energized their camp. And many Republicans have long used abortion to motivate conservatives to vote for them.

Jason Hennessey, president of New Hampshire Right To Life, praised the draft advisory and the attention it brought to the abortion debate.

“It gives us a much better opportunity to get our message across,” Hennessey said. “We are happy about that and hope that more people will see the unborn child as people who deserve some kind of rights.”

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, insists abortion will remain safe and legal in his state. But earlier this month, the Republican legislature defeated an effort to codify Roe into state law. And last year, lawmakers imposed new restrictions, including banning most abortions after 24 weeks, like Massachusetts law. The state also ordered anyone wanting the procedure to have an ultrasound first, which is not required in Massachusetts.

Hassan warned that New Hampshire could further erode abortion access if the court goes ahead and strikes down Roe.

“I think people couldn’t really believe this would actually happen,” she said, “and now that it’s here, they’re outraged.”

Several of Hassan’s Republican opponents said they favor tighter limits on abortions and support the proposed decision. One of his challengers is State Senate President Chuck Morse, who helped pass the 24-week abortion ban and opposed the codification of Roe v. Wade in the law.

Another is Kevin Smith, a former Londonderry city manager, who ran a Christian advocacy group and is openly anti-abortion. Smith said if the draft ruling holds, it will bring the abortion debate back to the states, where it belongs.

“I’ve been pro-life my entire career with the exception of rape, incest and mother life,” Smith said. “And so, I’m comfortable with the issue being referred to the states and reasonable restrictions being put in place.”

Smith says New Hampshire’s ban on abortions after 24 weeks is one such reasonable restriction. Only a tiny percentage of abortions occur this late. And the law has exceptions, like when the mother’s life is in danger.

Indeed, Smith insists that Democrats like Hassan are focusing on abortion to distract from a struggling economy, including inflation and high prices at the gas pump.

“It’s being used now to distract from what voters will be voting on this fall,” Smith said.

But Hassan and his fellow Democrats say there are good reasons New Hampshirens care about the threat to abortion rights. They point out that US Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has not ruled out pursuing a national abortion ban if Republicans regain control of Congress.

“Elections are important,” Hassan said. “The Granite Staters know that, and I think that’s something they’ll vote on.”

Several other Republicans are also running for the US Senate in New Hampshire, including retired US Army General Don Bolduc, who ran for the Senate in 2016; and Vikram Mansharamani, investor and entrepreneur.

Passions on both sides are already running high in the state. An indication of this occurred a few days ago, when Republican State Rep. Susan Delemus confronted abortion rights protesters outside the state capitol, accusing them of murder.

“Shame on you,” shouted Delemus.

Delemus pointed at individual protesters, shouting, “You are a murderer! You are a murderer!

Andy Smith, who heads the University of New Hampshire Center for Inquiry, said there was no way to know how much the fight will influence the midterm elections six months from now. And he said there were polls to give both sides hope.

National polls suggest voters generally care more about economic issues than social issues like abortion, which could help Republicans if inflation stays high.

At the same time, Smith says polls show a majority of New Hampshire voters want abortion to remain legal in most or all cases, which could help Democrats like Hassan.

Smith said he thinks the Supreme Court’s decision “probably motivates Democrats more than Republicans simply because anger is a greater motivating force than cheering on your party.”

But no one knows for sure.

The only certainty is that voters will continue to hear plenty from candidates talking about abortion as the nation prepares for a possible post-Roe world.

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