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Will abortion prove a major factor in NW elections?

abortion rally/protest
Courtesy of Craig Mitchelldyer
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Protesters hold signs demonstrating against the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in Portland, Ore., Friday, June 24, 2022. The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years, a decision by its conservative majority to overturn the court's landmark abortion cases.

It’s a Friday in October, and Washington state representative Dave Paul is on what you might call the front lines of his reelection bid: His voters’ front doors.

He’s a new face to voters in Arlington, Washington, who were in a Republican district last election but because of redistricting this year, are now in a swing district: Dave Paul’s.

Paul is a moderate Democrat, and he’s a supporter of abortion rights. And voters certainly do bring that up at their front doors, especially now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the constitutional right to abortion.

“The world is kind of a mess, right?” said Craig Adams, after opening his front door and pushing his dogs out of the way. “Every state's got its own struggles. I mean, I know abortion has been a huge issue. And, you know, we're happy that Washington protects that.”

This year, pollsters in Washington and Oregon tracked a huge jump in voters whose number one issue is abortion. It makes sense: Washington passed abortion protections by statewide vote before Roe v. Wade was even decided by the Supreme Court in the ‘70s, and Oregon’s abortion law is one of the most permissive in the world.

Democrats have run these states for years, and the other top issues – homelessness, inflation, and crime – are ones that Democrats aren’t polling so well in. Unaffiliated and Republican voters didn’t rate abortion as their top issue, according to Oregon pollster John Horvick.

“That's the part that makes me think that is the second-tier issue, because it didn't seem to move non-affiliated voters,” Horvick said. “It's like, Democrats are probably going to vote for Democrats anyway.”

Those unaffiliated voters actually make up a big chunk of the electorate in swing districts like Paul’s, according to Ron Muzzall, a Republican who represents this same district in the state senate. There are more than a few people who voted for Muzzall for senate and Paul for a house seat, Paul said.

South in Gig Harbor, another district where Republicans and Democrats share the same turf, hundreds of thousands of dollars have poured into a race that’s seen as very much about abortion.

Democrat Emily Randall, one of the strongest supporters of abortion rights in the state Senate, has raised over $750,000 in her reelection bid against Rep. Jesse Young, who this year proposed a bill to limit abortions after 15 weeks. Right now, Washington limits abortion after “viability” of the fetus, which is around 24 to 26 weeks. Young has raised a little over $650,000.

The question is whether abortion will outweigh other top issues, like homelessness, inflation, and crime. These are issues Paul hears about a lot when he’s doorbelling.

“I'm going to tell you right away, I'm not a Democrat,” said David Hough, who answered the door wearing a hoodie emblazoned with an American flag whose stripes had been replaced with assault rifles. “I don't believe in the way Inslee is running this. We’re overtaxed.”

Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, isn’t on the ballot. But Oregon is choosing a new governor this year and it’s perhaps the biggest seat Republicans could flip in the Northwest.

Oregon governor debate
Courtesy of Jamie Valdez/AP/Pool Pamplin Media Group
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FILE - Republican candidate Christine Drazan, left, and Democratic candidate Tina Kotek, middle, listen to unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson speak during the gubernatorial debate hosted by Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association at Mount Hood Oregon Resort in Welches, Ore., July 29, 2022. Oregon is typically known as a bastion of west coast liberalism, where Democrats are easily elected and a Republican hasn’t served as governor since the 1980s. But with an unusually competitive three-way contest this fall, Democrats’ candidate doesn’t seem so assured of winning.

That race is between three women: a Democrat, a Republican and a former Democrat who’s running as an independent. Her name is Betsy Johnson, and she supports abortion rights but is more focused on issues like homelessness and crime, which she’s promised to fix by mixing Democrats’ compassion with Republicans’ toughness.

Alison Gash, an associate professor of political science at University of Oregon, said although Johnson is not endorsed by Planned Parenthood or most major abortion advocates, some pro-choice voters are likely going to her.

“For a lot of voters – in particular, moderate Democrats for whom reproductive choice is an issue, for whom reproductive choice is really important – the issue of housing is also super important,” Gash said.

“And I think for some, that feels more like an emergency than the reproductive choice question.”

Polls show Betsy Johnson pretty far behind, but enough liberal voters have split off to support her rather than Democrat nominee Tina Kotek, that the Republican candidate could win. Her name is Christine Drazan, and she’s the only one of the three who’s anti-abortion.

She has said that although she’s pro-life, she wouldn’t do anything to limit abortion because she follows Oregon state law.

“So the folks on the stage with me today are saying two things,” Drazan said at a debate after both Johnson and Kotek came after her stance on abortion: “That a woman's right to choose is protected in Oregon, that it's in Oregon statute, and they're the ones that put it there. And they're also saying that a woman's right to choose is potentially at risk in Oregon if you elect a pro-life governor.”

“Both of those things cannot be true without legislative action.”

A common line from Oregon and Washington Republicans: we’re not going to repeal abortion protections. Democrats are responding with ads like this one, which juxtaposes Drazan’s comments with Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh saying that they would “follow the law” before being confirmed to the Supreme Court.

While ads from Democrats that highlight abortion rights are playing all around Oregon and Washington on TV, there are still weeks to go before the election. But abortion is not in the headlines like it was in the summer.

“I don't know that voters who sit down to vote up and down their ballot in November are going to approach their ballot with the same passion and urgency they might have felt very shortly after the Dobbs decision,” said Erin Schultz, a consultant who works with Democrats.

“But I think it's going to be top of mind, certainly, and going to be the main motivation for a lot of new and younger voters and for a lot of moderate voters.”

This story is part of a collaboration among public radio stations in the Northwest News Network covering the 2022 election season.