WASHINGTON – While most Democrats think it’s a winning issue, few congressional races this year have put the issue of abortion front and center like the rematch between Rep. Angie Craig and Republican Tyler Kistner.
Polls show the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade have given many Democrats a lift in what was expected to be a very bad election year for the party, and the abortion issue will resonate in other congressional districts in the state.
But it’s the heated race for the 2nd District congressional seat, rated a “toss up” by analysts, where abortion dominates the debate, thanks largely to Craig’s focus on the issue and the help she’s received from ads run by a PAC aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that slams Kistner on abortion. Those ads put Kistner on the defensive and provoked a heated response from the Minnesota Republican Party.
“Democrats are desperately trying to make this election about abortion because they know they can’t defend their failed records on the economy and public safety – their only option is to intentionally mislead the people they claim to represent,” said Minnesota GOP spokesman Nick Majerus in a statement.
Yes, Democrats are making abortion a campaign issue because it puts Republicans on the defensive and interferes with GOP efforts to make the mid-term a referendum on the economy and crime.
Congressional lawmakers have not made the lives of Republican candidates in swing districts any easier with the recent introduction of bills in the House and Senate that would ban most abortions nationwide after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. Republicans, including the Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had lauded the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe because it allowed each state to set up its own abortion policy.
But a federal bill restricting abortion would end the rights of all states, including Minnesota, to set their own abortion laws. Minnesota allows abortions until “viability,” which is the stage of pregnancy when a fetus has developed enough that it is able to survive outside the uterus with medical help. That usually happens around 24 to 26 weeks of pregnancy.
The latest salvo from the Craig camp is the establishment of a site, www.TylerKistner.com, that says the Republican is “too extreme” for Minnesota, largely because of his abortion stand.
“There is a stark contrast between my GOP opponent and me on reproductive rights,” Craig said. “Look, the contrast couldn’t be any more clear.”
Craig said she is hammering Kistner on abortion because it’s an important issue for her constituents. She, and other Democrats in the House, voted to approve a bill that would codify Roe v. Wade, to try to undo what the Supreme Court has done. The Senate did not follow suit because the Democrats in that chamber could not muster 60 votes needed to break an expected GOP filibuster on the legislation.
Nevertheless, Craig said a Democratic majority is needed in the House to protect not only abortion, but other rights the high court might consider. A concurrent opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas in the abortion decision said cases concerning the right to contraceptives and same-sex marriages should also be reviewed.
“To me it’s personal,” said Craig, who is married to a woman. “It’s an infringement of my personal freedoms and privacy.”
Kistner, meanwhile, says Craig is misrepresenting his position on abortion.
He has told MinnPost he pro-life except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of a mother is in danger. At a recent candidate forum held by the Chamber Coalition of Dakota County, he was asked if he supported Graham’s legislation.
“This decision should be left up to the states, not the federal government,” Kistner replied, twice.
Kistner’s campaign spokesman Tyler Dunn also repeated those positions in a statement to MinnPost.
“Tyler Kistner has consistently said that he supports exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother,” Dunn said. “He also believes that this issue should be decided by the states, not the federal government. “
Yet the GOP candidate, who has never held political office, has said varying things about abortion.
When he ran against Craig in 2020, narrowly losing that election, Kistner’s campaign website said he was “100%” pro-life. And, despite his support for states’ rights on abortion, he recently said Graham’s bill was “reasonable.”
On a questionnaire from Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, Kistner said he would support efforts to implement “a strategic plan for creating a pro-life nation.”
“This strategic plan involves an incremental approach which allows for the greatest number of lives saved while working toward our ultimate goal of establishing respect for human life in our laws and culture,” the questionnaire said.
Craig says the support of this “strategic plan” means Kistner would eventually support the outlawing of all abortions.
Meanwhile, Dunn said Craig’s votes for legislation that would codify Roe, would “allow abortion up until the moment of birth.”
Roe did not do that, only allowing late-term abortions if the life of the mother was at stake. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Health, only about 1.8% of 10,000 abortions performed in the state in 2021 took place after 20 weeks. Virtually all of those 161 abortions took place in the 21st, 22nd and 23rd week of a pregnancy.
The legislation in Congress to codify Roe, however, would allow a medical professional to make a “good faith judgement,” after the period of fetal viability that “the continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”
That’s why Republicans say those who voted for the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” support abortion up to the moment of birth.
Dunn also knocked Craig for voting, like most of her House Democratic colleagues, against the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” that would require care to be given to an infant that survives an abortion procedure. Democrats argue that current laws already guarantee infants’ legal rights.
In any case, Kistner’s support of restrictions on abortion may not play well among all voters in the 2nd District.
A recent NBC News poll focused on “persuadable” voters in five “battleground” congressional districts across the nation, including Craig’s suburban and exurban district. The poll said while there are solid Democratic voters and solid Republican voters in every election, there are also voters who are less sure of where they stand. These are the “persuadables.”
The poll found this year 43% of all persuadable voters live in those outer suburbs. The nation’s big city urban core counties and the near-in urban ring counties hold about 21% to 23% of the persuadable voters, the poll determined, while rural counties are home to only about 12% of the nation’s persuadables.
About 54% of those undecided voters said they opposed the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe. But the bad news for Craig and other Democrats running in the battleground districts that were surveyed is that 63% disapproved of President Biden’s handling of the economy.
Those persuadables are now a main target of an onslaught of television ads funded by the candidates and groups supporting Craig and Kistner that will blanket the airwaves until Election Day. More than $10 million has already been spent on those third-party ads.
“Democrats feel like they are on strong footing talking about abortion, and thus they are going on the offensive on the issue all over the country,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The message may be better-suited for districts like MN-2, which have significant suburban segments that are arguably trending Democratic. Whether it is enough for Craig to win is a different question, but Democrats feel like they have a winner on this issue. “
An increased level of anxiety
The heated race in the 2nd District is not the only congressional political contest in the state were Democrats are making abortion a big issue.
Democrat Jeff Ettinger, who is challenging Rep. Brad Finstad, R-1st, is planning to run his first television ad in October that will address the candidate’s differences on abortion, among other things.
Ettinger lost a special election by about four percentage points against Finstad last month to temporarily fill the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s seat. Ettinger said he is convinced the abortion issue will help Democrats in November’s general election, especially since the issue has boosted Democrats in other special elections this year. He also pointed an overwhelming vote in Kansas to reject a ballot initiative that would have said there was no right to an abortion in the state.
Ettinger said after the Supreme Court issued its decision in late June on Roe, “the interest level and anxiety level of voters has increased.”
He said he supported Roe and if elected to Congress he would vote to codify the now defunct 1973 opinion that said that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional.
“You’ve now created state-by-state chaos,” Ettinger said of the overturn of Roe.
Finstad’s campaign did not respond to requests for comments for this story.
But he told television station KIMT in May, before the Supreme Court’s ruling but after a draft memo of that decision was leaked, that he was “100% pro-life.”
“We need to protect and uphold the sanctity of life,” Finstad told KIMT. “With the leaked document and if the Supreme Court does go down this road, then it goes back to the states and it becomes an issue that is more localized and that the states can have a say in it. I think the best form of government is the most localized government we can have.”
Abortion is also an issue in the race for the 3rd District congressional seat between Rep. Dean Phillips and his Republican opponent Tom Weiler.
Like most GOP candidates, Weiler is focusing on crime and inflation and will air his first campaign commercial next month that will highlight those issues, as well as introduce himself to 3rd District voters.
“I’m focused on what’s important,” Weiler said. “Our priorities haven’t changed at all.”
Weiler said he is “pro-life,” and opposes abortion except for cases of rape, incest and danger to a mother’s life. He also said he backs the idea that states should be able to determine their own abortion laws.
As far as federal bill to restrict abortion, which supporters say they will introduce again in the next Congress, Weiler declined to say whether he’s vote for the legislation since it was “hypothetical,” and he hasn’t seen its language.
Meanwhile, Phillips is countering GOP attacks on Democrats related to crime and inflation by supporting bills in Congress that would fund police and that aim to bring down inflation, But like other Minnesota Democrats, his campaign views abortion as a winning issue.
A member of the Pro-Choice Caucus in Congress, Phillips has called the overturning of Roe “dangerous and shortsighted” and voted to codify Roe.
“As a the father of two daughters, one of whom lives in a state in which abortion is totally illegal, I am outraged that they have had a deep personal freedom withdrawn by their own country,” Phillips said. “And based on my regular conversations with both progressive and conservative female voters, they share that outrage and have every intention to express it this November.”