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As N.H. Republicans ready for primary, Democrats work to push abortion rights to center of campaign

Pro-abortion rights activists protest outside an Executive Council in Henniker in July. (Alli Fam/NHPR)
Pro-abortion rights activists protest outside an Executive Council in Henniker in July. (Alli Fam/NHPR)

With meaningful Democratic primaries all but non-existent in New Hampshire this primary season, the unsettled Republican nomination contests have filled the state’s political landscape for months. But with primary day less than two weeks out, top Democratic candidates in the state are working to refocus voters attention on abortion rights, an issue they see as critical to voters and their party’s success in November.

This push comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, which struck down a constitutional right to abortion. It also coincides with historic political tension over abortion and contraception policies in Concord.

Republicans in the Legislature last year outlawed most abortions after 24 weeks, the first significant state prohibition on abortion in decades.

At the Executive Council table, meanwhile, Republicans blocked abortion providers from executing family planning contracts that have been awarded without much without controversy for years.

In separate appearances in Concord and Manchester this week, Democrats Sen. Maggie Hassan and Rep. Chris Pappas, both of whom are facing tight re-election battles this fall, said electing Democrats is the way to ensure that abortion rights and access to health care including contraception, STD and cancer screenings aren’t further eroded. Both raised the specter of a national abortion ban if Republicans gain control of Congress.

“No matter who my opponent is, a woman’s right to be a full and equal citizen in our democracy will be on the ballot,” Hassan said as she campaigned at the Equality Health Center in Concord on Wednesday.

“We need to have protections on the books nationally that stop this insanity of policies that are restricting individual rights and are jeopardizing the health and welfare of individuals. People will die as a result of this Supreme Court decision,” Pappas said at Stark Park in Manchester the same day.

Defending abortion rights has animated New Hampshire Democrats for years, regardless of whether Republicans in Concord or Washington significantly threatened them. But with the Dobbs ruling, and a New Hampshire State House led by GOP majorities who tightened state abortion policies, Democrats believe the issue has new potency this year.

“Absolutely, this is top of mind for all of my constituents,” said state Sen. Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, who joined Hassan in Concord.

A recent poll by St. Anselm College may bear that out: It showed 71% of likely voters polled identified as pro-choice, and that 60% of them said the issue of abortion would be “extremely or very important” in determining their votes.

To that end, Democratic campaigns are scouring the comments and records of Republican candidates daily in search of evidence to support their contention that new abortion restrictions would be imminent should Republicans carry New Hampshire’s federal races.

“RACE TO THE BOTTOM:” GOP Senate Candidates Fight Over Who is Most Anti-Choice,” read one recent email subject line from the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

As they campaign across the state these days, Republicans mostly stress fiscal issues.

“This race is about the economy and inflation,” Senate GOP candidate Chuck Morse declared last week.

But Morse, who was recently endorsed by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading national anti-abortion group, also talks up his role in passing the state’s 24-week abortion ban.

“For the first time in 50 years, we did something about abortion in New Hampshire,” Morse noted during a recent debate.

Meanwhile, for avowedly “pro-choice” Republican politicians, a once common but now rare type here, the politics of this moment can be hard to navigate.

Gov. Chris Sununu is a case in point. He said in 2020 that he didn't see the need for new abortion laws; six months later, he signed the 24-week ban into law calling it “common sense.” With his backing, lawmakers later added new exceptions to permit abortion after 24 weeks in the case of fatal fetal anomalies, but they rejected Sununu’s request to also allow exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

Sununu has also hit a roadblock over family planning. Over the past year, Republican executive councilors have repeatedly voted down funding for reproductive health care centers that provide cancer screenings, STD testing and treatment, and contraception to more than 17,000 granite staters.

“This is a pro-choice state,” Democratic Councilor Cinde Warmington said as she campaigned alongside Pappas in reference to abortion politics at the council table. “These councilors do not reflect the values of our state.”

But in GOP primaries where multiple candidates are vying for attention, abortion is a place where candidates are trying establish their conservative values to voters. That even goes for candidates who call themselves pro-choice.

Gail Huff Brown, who’s running in the 1st Congressional District, is running a campaign ad talking about her experience going into labor 20 weeks into her pregnancy.

“The doctor looked me in the eye and said, ‘Whose life are we going to save?’ I chose my unborn child,” Huff Brown says in the ad. "But in that agonizing moment, I was comforted to know I had a choice.”

The issue is also playing itself out in odd ways in the 2nd Congressional District’s Republican primary, where Keene Mayor George Hansel identifies as pro-choice. Hansel says he wouldn’t vote for bills creating a national limits on abortion if elected. But in a radio debate this week, Hansel also said he agreed with the Executive Council’s decision to buck Sununu and reject the family planning contracts.

“I’m not in favor of using taxpayer funded dollars for organizations that perform abortions,” Hansel said.

Hansel then added that he took exception to primary rival Bob Burns, calling himself the only pro-life candidate vying to take on incumbent Democrat Annie Kuster.

“You can hear we are all in favor of life. It comes down to a question of legality and other things,” Hansel said.

Democrats, including Kuster, who worked as a lobbyist for the National Abortion Rights League before winning election to Congress a decade ago, are sure to remind voters of Hansel’s words should he win the Republican primary in the state’s more liberal congressional district.

Pappas, who may face the toughest reelection bid of any major Democratic incumbent, has been on the ballot in every state election since 2002. He agrees that abortion plays a role in every campaign season here, but said with Roe overturned, he’s confident voters understand the stakes are high.

“We don’t have a backstop anymore,” Pappas said in Manchester. “This November's election is going to have the biggest impact on reproductive rights in this nation’s history.”

This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio. 

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