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After Roe leak, abortion becomes hot election issue in N.H. and elsewhere

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N.H. Sen. Maggie Hassan speaks to media outside a polling place in Portsmouth, N.H. during a previous campaign. (Elise Amendola/AP)
N.H. Democratic Senate candidate, Gov. Maggie Hassan speaks to media outside a polling place in Portsmouth, N.H. (Elise Amendola/AP)

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and other prominent Democrats converged on Planned Parenthood in Concord, New Hampshire, earlier this week to sound the alarm about abortion rights.

Hassan's in a tough fight for re-election. And like similar races across the country, the campaign in New Hampshire, for now, has pivoted from the economy to abortion.

The change in tone followed news this month of a Supreme Court draft ruling that suggests a majority of justices have voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that gave Americans the constitutional right to abortion. Should Roe fall, nearly half of states are expected to ban or significantly limit access to abortion. And some warn other states could follow and Congress might even try to erect a national ban.

"We cannot let politicians — whether they be in Washington or in Concord — take away a woman's freedom," said Hassan, who vows to protect abortion rights as part of her bid to win re-election.

New Hampshire's top Democrats say abortion rights are in danger. They include Congressman Chris Pappas, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Executive Council member Cinde Warmington, Senator Maggie Hassan and Congresswoman Annie Kuster
New Hampshire's top Democrats say abortion rights are in danger. They include Congressman Chris Pappas, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Executive Council member Cinde Warmington, Sen. Maggie Hassan and Congresswoman Annie Kuster. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

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

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

"If that [draft] opinion stands, 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 Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire's senior senator.

But opponents of abortion in New Hampshire say the prospect of overturning Roe has energized their side as well. And many Republicans have long used abortion to motivate conservatives to vote for them.

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

"It gives us a much better opportunity to get our message out," Hennessey said. "We're happy about that, and we hope more people will see the unborn as people who deserve some sort of rights."

New Hampshire Gov. 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, similar to the law in Massachusetts. The state also ordered anyone seeking the procedure to first get an ultrasound, something not required in Massachusetts.

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

"I think people couldn't quite believe that it would actually happen," she said, "and now that it's here they are outraged."

Several of Hassan's Republican opponents said they favor tougher limits on abortions and support the draft decision. One of her challengers is state Senate President Chuck Morse, who helped pass the 24-week abortion ban and opposed codifying Roe v. Wade into law.

Another is Kevin Smith, a former town manager of Londonderry, who led a Christian advocacy group and is avowedly anti-abortion. Smith said if the draft decision holds, it will bring the abortion debate back to the states, where it belongs.

"I've been pro-life my entire career with exception of rape, incest and life of the mother," Smith said. "And so, I am comfortable with the issue being returned to the states and with reasonable restrictions put in place."

Smith says New Hampshire's ban on abortions after 24 weeks is one of those reasonable restrictions. Only a tiny percentage of abortions happen that late. And the law has exceptions, such as when the life of the mother is in danger.

Indeed, Smith insists Democrats like Hassan are focusing on abortion to shift attention away from a troubled economy, including inflation and high prices at the gas pump.

"This is being used now to distract from what voters will be voting on this fall," Smith said.

But Hassan and her fellow Democrats say there's good reason for New Hampshire residents to care about the threat to abortion rights. They point out that U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell hasn't ruled out pursuing a nation-wide abortion ban should Republicans regain control of Congress.

"Elections matter," Hassan said. "Granite Staters know it, and I think this is an issue that they will vote on."

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

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

"Shame on you," Delemus screamed.

Delemus pointed to individual protestors, yelling, "You're a murderer! You're a murderer!"

Andy Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said there's no way to know how much the fight will influence the mid-term elections six months from now. And he said there's polling to give both parties hope.

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

At the same time, Smith says polling shows 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 ruling "probably motivates Democrats more than Republicans simply because anger is a greater motivating force than cheering your party on."

But no one knows for sure.

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

This segment aired on May 13, 2022.

Related:

Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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