Abortion access finds a place even in down-ballot campaigns

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This image from video from Tuesday, July 26, 2022, shows Dita Bhargava, a Connecticut Democratic candidate for State Treasurer, appearing in her campaign advertisement. (DitaCT22 Campaign via AP)

HARTFORD, Conn. – Appearing bare-shouldered in a TV ad, Connecticut Democrat Dita Bhargava looks directly into the camera and promises, if elected, to “lead the crusade” for abortion rights.

Photos of other women flash on the screen, also with no clothes showing. “This is who have freedom over their own bodies stripped away,” Bhargava says in the commercial, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling overturning the constitutional right to abortion. “This is who the Supreme Court left completely vulnerable.”

It would make sense to think Bhargava is running for governor, state legislature or Congress — positions that could play a direct role in future abortion laws. She's not. She's a candidate for state treasurer.

Bhargava, a contender in Connecticut's Aug. 9 primary, is among Democratic candidates in down-ballot races, such as treasurer, auditor or secretary of state, who have seized on the abortion issue, even when the office they seek doesn't have an obvious connection to abortion access.

“Others might say it’s not relevant. It’s absolutely relevant to the treasurer’s office,” Bhargava, chief operating officer of a private investment fund, said in an interview, explaining that the state has the power to affect corporate behavior through its pension investment decisions.

“When I'm state treasurer, the state will not invest in companies that don't do the right thing by their employees," she said. "And part of doing that right thing is to support a woman's right to safe, legal abortion.”

In Wisconsin, treasurer candidate Gillian Battino, a Democrat and physician, has asked donors to help her “fight to codify Roe." The treasurer in Wisconsin does not set abortion policy or even oversee investments. The job mostly entails signing checks on behalf of the state and chairing a board that handles payments from lands held in trust.

The Supreme Court's decision to return the abortion question to the states steered attention toward governor's races, where winners will play an outsize role in the fate of future restrictions. But candidates for lower state offices also seek to capitalize on a ruling unpopular with a majority of Americans to boost campaign contributions and inspire voter turnout.

Sandy Theis, a Democratic consultant in Ohio, said threats to abortion access have a history of mobilizing Democratic voters.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which gave states greater leeway to restrict abortions, Democratic challengers unseated Republican governors in Virginia and Florida, and exit polls showed Democrat Ann Richards captured 60% of the women's vote, including 25% of Republican women, to become governor of Texas.

“The Republican Party doesn’t understand the selling power of something like taking away women’s reproductive freedom,” Theis said. “If the Democrats play this right, and message this right, I think it will help them all over the ticket.”

Down-ticket Republican candidates have largely avoided the abortion issue, focusing often on their sought offices' core functions. The exception is attorney general races, in which some GOP candidates have pledged to defend state laws under the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling, help local prosecutors pursue abortion crimes and defend new restrictions in court.

Democratic attorney general candidates in Arizona, California, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Ohio pitch themselves as the last line of defense for abortion rights.

Taylor Sappington, the Democratic nominee for state auditor in Ohio, said voters sometimes question his focus on the abortion ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, given that the office he seeks would seem to have no bearing on women’s health care.

He said he reminds them that Ohio's auditor sits on the state's political mapmaking commission, which draws districts for entities that do have a role.

“The truth is that the voters empowered the redistricting commission, and put the auditor on that commission, to draw maps for the Legislature and for Congress," he said. "All of the issues that those bodies handle — including abortion, but also education, health care, and civil liberties for LGBTQ folks like myself, like gay marriage — are affected by those maps.”

The current auditor, Republican Keith Faber, has promoted his endorsement by Ohio Right to Life, the Republican-leaning state’s oldest and largest anti-abortion group, but otherwise mostly steered clear of social issues. Instead, he is campaigning against high inflation under President Joe Biden.

Races for offices overseeing state elections also have joined the abortion discussion.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, the Democratic secretary of state nominee in Georgia, said the Supreme Court ruling was “part of a broader assault on our fundamental rights,” and sought to link that back to elections.

“We must fight back at the ballot box and wield our most powerful tool: our sacred, most fundamental right to vote,” she said in a fundraising solicitation that appears to have worked. She's currently outraising the Republican incumbent.

Democratic Secretaries of State Jocelyn Benson, of Michigan, and Jena Griswold, of Colorado, are also campaigning on the issue. Griswold, who chairs the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told would-be donors that, if reelected, she wouldn’t apply the state seal to the extradition paperwork of any out-of-state patient seeking an abortion or reproductive health care in Colorado.

Abortion is resonating even further down the ballot.

In New Hampshire, the issue has arisen in campaigns for elected members of an obscure but powerful state body that approves state contracts, judicial nominations and agency heads. Majority Republicans on the state's Executive Council have repeatedly rejected funding for family planning clinics over unfounded concerns that public money is being used for abortions.

The political action fund for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England has gotten involved on the other side, citing the council's “outsized role when it comes to reproductive health in this state.”

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Carr Smyth reported from Columbus, Ohio. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; Jim Anderson in Denver; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin; Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan; Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis; and Gabe Stern in Carson City, Nevada.