Republicans say November will turn on the economy, but some admit abortion rights could be a factor
by Joshua Jamerson, The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2022
LAS VEGAS—Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, one of the most vulnerable Democrats this year, is urging voters to re-elect her to prevent a Republican takeover of the Senate that she says could lead to a national law banning abortions.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Mitch McConnell would put it on the table,” Ms. Cortez Masto said in an interview. She pointed to comments the Republican Senate minority leader made earlier this year that it was “possible” that Congress and states could vote on curbing the procedure in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade and ending the constitutional right to an abortion. A person familiar with Mr. McConnell’s thinking said the Kentucky senator doesn’t think there will be the 60 votes needed in the chamber to advance any bill related to abortion access.
Ms. Cortez Masto’s pitch is tricky given that her Republican opponent Adam Laxalt, a former attorney general, says he would also oppose a federal ban, especially since Nevada voters in 1990 passed a ballot initiative that endorsed a state statute protecting abortion rights through 24 weeks of pregnancy. That law still stands.
Passing a national law would “contradict what I have argued for my entire adult life and what the Supreme Court just ordered—to return the issue to the people,” Mr. Laxalt wrote in an op-ed to the Reno Gazette Journal this month,` responding to criticism from Ms. Cortez Masto.
Democrats are using the Nevada race to test the strength of the abortion issue after strategists in both parties were surprised in August when 60% of voters in Kansas rejected a referendum that would have explicitly stated there is no right to abortion in the state’s constitution. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) called the Kansas outcome “a wake-up call” for the Republican Party, which favored overturning Roe.
Ms. Cortez Masto is one of the Republicans’ top targets in the November midterm elections as they seek to wrest back control of the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris currently breaks ties to the benefit of the Democrats.
Pat Hickey, a former Republican leader in the Nevada Assembly representing parts of Washoe County, said the economy would remain top of mind for most voters, but anxiety after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe could play a role. “I think many women and many Republican women will not be anxious to see abortion laws in Nevada change,” Mr. Hickey said.
Margarita Romano, a Democrat who runs a social-services clinic in Las Vegas and is backing Ms. Cortez Masto, said the court decision led her to get involved in organizing for a political candidate for the first time. “We’re talking about the future of choice,” she said.
During interviews at a local GOP gathering in Las Vegas last week, Republican voters had mixed feelings about Mr. Laxalt’s personal stance on abortion. Mr. Laxalt has said he is personally opposed to abortion, a view he said in the op-ed was informed by “being born to a young single mother who chose not to abort me.”
Mr. Laxalt, who as attorney general supported restrictions in other states, such as Alabama, also wrote in his op-ed that he would support a new referendum, which currently isn’t on the ballot, to change Nevada’s law to permit abortion until 13 weeks of pregnancy instead of 24 weeks.
Jacque Parker, a Republican business banker from Las Vegas, said she was leaning toward crossing party lines to vote for Ms. Cortez Masto based in part on Mr. Laxalt’s comments about his personal stance and his support for restrictions to Nevada’s state law.
“It’s my right. Don’t tell me what to do with my body,” Ms. Parker said.
Cathy Freeze, a Las Vegas Republican voter and retired social-services worker, said she doesn’t want congressional action on abortion and she doubts Republicans would try to pass anything in Congress. “They might do it, but I don’t think they will,” said Ms. Freeze, 71 years old, who plans to vote for Mr. Laxalt. “I think they’re overreacting to the abortion thing,” she said of Democrats.
Strategists in both parties said the recent vote in Kansas demonstrated that the abortion issue can energize a swath of the electorate. Independents there turned out in large numbers, and about a fifth of those voting on the referendum—more than 180,000 people—weighed in only on the abortion ballot question and didn’t vote in the day’s Republican or Democratic primaries for governor, the Journal previously reported.
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it made sense for Democrats to try to use abortion access to increase turnout among their core supporters but that Republican voters would also be motivated by inflation and the direction of the economy.
Alena Sheehan, a state employee who lives in Las Vegas and typically votes for Republicans, said she was most fired up to vote for Mr. Laxalt to show her disapproval of the climate and healthcare law Democrats, including Ms. Cortez Masto, voted for this summer. “I work hard for my money…and then you’re going to tax me? It’s not right,” said Ms. Sheehan, 58 years old, who said that broadly speaking, she heard Democrats were raising taxes to offset the cost of the law. The law imposes taxes on large, profitable corporations, but GOP leaders have argued that’ll get passed down to everyday Americans.
The abortion rights issue is also driving some Republican establishment figures in the state to rally around Ms. Cortez Masto, including Pete Ernaut, a longtime Nevada Republican who previously represented deeply conservative areas of Washoe County near Reno in the state legislature.
Now a private consultant, he publicly supported Ms. Cortez Masto in an op-ed in the Reno Gazette Journal this month. In an interview, he said he remembers widespread support in his district for the 1990 ballot initiative that sealed Nevada’s abortion rights.
“Being a moderate, pro-choice Republican in Washoe County was the vast majority—and there’s still, I think, a lot of that,” Mr. Ernaut said.
Susan Fisher, a lobbyist in Reno and longtime Republican who has at times supported Democrats, said she remembers campaigning for the 1990 effort to add protection for abortion rights to state law.
“Having this court decision overturned is frightening to me because I just think it’s going down a slippery path,” said Ms. Fisher, who has campaigned for Ms. Cortez Masto. “Do I think there might be something coming up in Congress? Yes, and that scares me.”
Write to Joshua Jamerson at [email protected]