Arizona’s Senate race may be the next contest for Democrats where abortion plays a decisive role.
As the party looks to hold onto its slim majority in the upper chamber, it is leaning into an abortion rights platform, which helped it score numerous victories over the past year in red and purple states.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who’s running for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (I-Ariz.) seat, is already targeting Republican candidate Kari Lake’s past comments on the issue.
The contest comes amid a larger fight over the issue in the Grand Canyon State, as abortion rights advocates are looking to secure a ballot measure enshrining abortion rights in the state Constitution.
“I think it’s going to play a very big role for candidate Lake next year. Her rhetoric while she was running for governor was absolutely insane, and she’s going to have to find a way to get that genie back in the bottle if there’s any hope for her to win an election,” said Democratic strategist Stacy Pearson.
Democrats, including Gallego, point to audio following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in which she said she was “incredibly thrilled that we are going to have a great law that’s already on the books,” referring to an 1864 law in Arizona — now under litigation — that bans nearly all abortions.
Lake expressed support for Texas’s six-week ban in 2021 and has called abortion the “ultimate sin.” Lake said in remarks during a radio interview before the Supreme Court’s decision that she believed the issue of abortion access should be left to the states and said that “to have the federal government telling us what to do when it comes to abortion I think is wrong.”
Lake’s campaign website now says she does not support a federal abortion ban. She told The Hill in an interview last month that “what I support is all 50 states are going to come up with their own laws on abortion.”
“I want to make sure that women, when they find themselves pregnant, aren’t afraid and think that’s the only choice they have. Regardless of how many weeks is the law, regardless of all of that, I want to make sure that women have — know there are choices out there,” she told The Hill.
Her campaign told the Arizona Mirror that she backed initiatives like tax credits for women, baby bonuses and paid family leave.
When The Hill asked Lake about what state level limits on abortion she would favor, she said, “I obviously want to make sure that women who are raped, victims of incest, life of Mother — I want to make sure that that those women have access.”
“We’re gonna probably end up being voting on this, and the people of Arizona will make a decision, and that will become the law,” she added.
But Gallego said he believes Lake wasn’t being genuine on the issue of abortion, telling The Hill in a phone interview on Friday, “this rhetoric came about, basically, just a couple months ago. This is not some deep-held belief. She has flip-flopped on the issue and for us to trust her on this would be extremely naive as voters.”
The Arizona Democrat argued the stakes around abortion access are high, particularly with Lake’s past statements on the 1864 abortion ban.
“So we have a very big danger that someone like that gets into the Senate and will obviously support an abortion ban. And then you also have a problem with Sen. Sinema, who is not busting the filibuster open to make sure that we pass nationwide protections for choice,” he said.
One Republican strategist granted anonymity to speak freely said Democrats are using “fear tactics” and argued Republicans don’t have the votes to pass federal restrictions.
“Overall, it’s going to be tough to make that the main issue here when, again, voters are technically smart enough to know right now that it is up to the states, and there are not 60 votes in the United States Senate to — or even 218 votes in the House and the House Republican majority right now to — do any sort of abortion ban,” the strategist said.
The Republican strategist asserted Lake has “made quite clear that she doesn’t support a federal abortion ban” while pointing to Gallego’s and Sinema’s previous support for federal abortion legislation that they claimed didn’t stipulate restrictions on the medical procedure.
“I think Democrats would like abortion to be the number one issue. If you look at the polling, though, over and over again, whether it’s Fox, CBS, ABC — name the outlet — the top issues are inflation economy and border,” the strategist said. “And abortion is a top issue for Dem voters, but not for independent voters and not for Republican voters.”
But Democrats and abortion right advocates say it will be a salient issue and are skeptical that Lake will be able to pivot.
“I mean, the truth is, we know that voters aren’t going to be fooled or distracted by people who are, you know, either shifting their position or changing their position. Her hostility towards reproductive freedom has been pretty clear throughout her political career and is in direct contrast to the will of the majority of Arizonans,” said Elizabeth Schoetz, the chief campaigns and advocacy officer at Reproductive Freedom for All, which has previously backed Sinema but has endorsed Gallego in this Senate cycle.
Maeve Coyle, a spokesperson for the Senate Democratic campaign arm, told The Hill that “in her own words and on video, Lake has told voters she doesn’t think they deserve the right to make their own health care decisions – and it will lead her to defeat in 2024.”
Lake and Senate Republicans, for their part, have sought to cast Gallego as out of line with Americans on the issue. Lake claimed in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he “supports late term abortion, up to 9 months.”
Tate Mitchell, a spokesman for the Senate GOP campaign arm, alleged in a statement that “Ruben Gallego doesn’t want to talk about his support for taxpayer-funded abortions up until birth” and Kaitlin Makuski, political affairs director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement that both Gallego and Sinema “are extreme and out of touch on the issue.”
Gallego argued Republicans’ lobs “aren’t at all real or based on any type of reality, and just trying to distract from their extreme position.”
But the back-and-forth come as abortion has become one of the Democrats’ most effective tools in turning out voters, including during last month’s elections in Ohio and Virginia.
Paul Bentz, a pollster with GOP firm HighGround, said the deciding factor in the race would more likely “come down to the turnout game for both teams,” but acknowledged Democrats would likely seize on the abortion issue heading into next year.
“I think Republicans will probably pivot away from it to talk about inflation and the economy, trying to focus on Biden instead of these other issues. Democrats in the last cycle were very effective in bringing the issue back to abortion, particularly in the Blake Masters race,” Bentz noted, referring to a GOP Senate candidate who ran against Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) last cycle and lost.
But the issue is likely to be front and center for voters as abortion rights advocates try to collect enough signatures for a ballot measure that proposes “every individual has a fundamental right to abortion” and that the state cannot block access to the procedure “before fetal viability.”
At the same time, abortion will be back in the public eye next month as the state Supreme Court hears oral arguments over the fate of an 1864 law that offers only the life of the patient as an exception for performing the medical procedure and stipulates jail sentences for doctors who violate the law.
DJ Quinlan, a former executive director for the Arizona Democratic Party, said the ballot measure is sure to encourage turnout among key voting blocs that Democrats will need to win — the presidential election, Senate race and down the ballot.
“I think it’s uniquely strategic thing for Democrats because it not only increases turnout with women, with Latinos, with young voters, who are important parts of the Democratic coalition,” Quinlan said. “But it also, I think, divides the Republican Party in the suburbs, particularly with swing voters, you know, separates them pretty drastically from public opinion.”