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Pro-Choice Groups Take the Abortion Fight to Red States
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Pro-Choice Groups Take the Abortion Fight to Red States

Plus: What to expect in next week’s neck-and-neck Kentucky GOP governor’s primary.

Pro-life and pro-choice protesters in front of the Kentucky state capitol on October, 2022. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images.)

Happy Wednesday! It’s not the sort of thing you’ll hear about from the Fake News types over at The Morning Dispatch, but the St. Louis Cardinals have beaten the Chicago Cubs twice this week and will go for the series sweep tonight. 

Up to Speed

  • A federal jury in New York City on Tuesday found former President Donald Trump civilly liable for sexually assaulting and defaming magazine writer E. Jean Carroll after she alleged the former president raped her in a department store in the 1990s. The jury, however, did not hold Trump liable for the rape charges. Shortly after the verdict’s announcement, which ordered Trump to pay Carroll $5 million, the former president said he plans to appeal. “I have absolutely no idea who this woman is. This verdict is a disgrace—a continuation of the greatest witch hunt of all time!” he wrote in a social media post. Expect to hear more on that front from the former president later today: He’ll be appearing on a CNN town hall at 8 p.m. ET.
  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters Tuesday that he “didn’t see any new movement” over the debt ceiling standoff after he and other top congressional leaders met with President Joe Biden in the White House to discuss how to avoid a default. Democrats have signaled thus far that they won’t get on board with legislation passed by the House GOP majority late last month that pairs a debt ceiling increase with spending cuts. 
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cut ties this week with his state political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, the latest sign he’s likely inching toward formally announcing his long-anticipated 2024 presidential campaign. Despite not being a candidate yet, the governor has racked up several notable presidential endorsements in recent days, including from GOP Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, and former Trump campaign strategy adviser Steve Cortes.
  • GOP Rep. George Santos of New York, the first-term congressman who has come under fire from members of his own party for fabricating his résumé, surrendered to federal authorities in Long Island Wednesday morning after the Justice Department filed criminal charges against him. The wide-ranging indictment charges Santos for wire fraud, money laundering,  lying to the U.S. House of Representatives, and stealing public funds.
  • Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California returned to Washington on Tuesday, her office said, after spending roughly three months recovering from shingles in San Francisco. Feinstein, who is 89 years old and plans to retire next year, has faced growing criticisms about her declining mental acuity, and her absence had led some House Democrats to call for her resignation.
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN this week that he views Montana, West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as the Senate GOP’s top four targets this cycle, an early indicator of the Democrat-held battlegrounds where McConnell’s aligned super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, is likely to invest. 
  • The North Carolina GOP announced Monday that it will host a number of declared and prospective presidential candidates at their annual three-day convention in June, including confirmed attendees Trump, DeSantis, and former Vice President Mike Pence.
  • Sen. Joni Ernst will host her ninth annual “Roast & Ride” gathering at the Iowa state fairgrounds on June 3. This year’s event will feature Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley, the former ambassador and South Carolina governor. Ernst expects to welcome other GOP presidential candidates to her event, which features a motorcycle ride beginning at a dealership in Des Moines, followed by speeches and other political activities at the fairgrounds.

A ‘Direct-Democracy End-Run’ Around Pro-Life Legislatures

Pro-choice groups won a series of striking victories in last year’s midterm elections, helping to defeat ballot measures backed by pro-lifers in a string of conservative states, from Kansas to Kentucky. This cycle, they’re aiming even higher.

Even as GOP legislatures continue to pass new abortion restrictions, activists are pushing to place the question of abortion access directly in the hands of voters through proposed amendments to their state constitutions.

In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a coalition of groups that includes Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Florida announced Monday they will attempt to place an amendment on the ballot codifying the old Roe v. Wade standard: no restrictions on abortion before fetal viability outside the womb or when abortion is necessary to protect the life or health of the mother, “as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider.”

That announcement follows similar efforts that are already underway ahead of the 2024 election in Arizona, Missouri, and South Dakota, all of which have imposed legislative abortion restrictions since the Supreme Court struck down Roe last year. In Ohio, where a six-week ban is currently tied up in state court, activists aren’t waiting until 2024—they hope to place an abortion referendum on the ballot this very November.

“We have a state motto: ‘Under God the people rule.’ And we have this rich tradition since 1898 where we can petition the government and actually pass laws,” said Rick Weiland, the former Democratic Senate candidate whose group, Dakotans for Health, is spearheading the ballot effort in South Dakota. Abortion is currently wholly illegal in the state except to preserve the life of the mother under a “trigger ban” passed in 2005.

“We started thinking about the idea of using a ballot measure shortly after the Alito decision was leaked,” Weiland told The Dispatch, “because we figured the writing was on the wall that this was gonna ultimately happen.”

The ballot-measure strategy, which Weiland called “a direct-democracy end-run around the legislature,” is logistically onerous. While legal requirements vary from state to state, getting language on the ballot typically requires groups to navigate multiple procedural layers of state approval and then to collect tens or even hundreds of thousands of voter signatures ahead of the election, a labor-intensive process that can cost millions of dollars to fund.

Then, of course, voters have to approve the amendment, for which the threshold of passage also varies by state. In South Dakota, a simple majority is sufficient; in Florida, 60 percent of voters must approve the measure. In Ohio, Republican lawmakers and pro-abortion access groups are in a footrace: With the abortion-access referendum looming, the GOP legislature proposed their own amendment to raise the approval threshold from 50 to 60 percent, then authorized an August special election in the hope voters would approve the change in time for the likely abortion fight in November.

But despite the logistical hurdles, groups that support legal abortion believe the political advantage is theirs to press after a midterm election that saw referendum after referendum tip their way. Sixty-six percent of voters in deep-blue California and 55 percent in bluish Michigan codified a right to abortion in their state constitutions last year. Meanwhile, voters in Kansas and Kentucky declined to amend theirs to explicitly state that their legislatures had jurisdiction over abortion policy.

“What it shows, the fact that this happens in Kentucky or Kansas, is that this is a nonpartisan issue,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Florida. “This is something that people from all walks of life across the political spectrum care about—they do not want the government interfering with their personal medical decisions.”

Meanwhile, pro-life groups have shifted to defense on the referendum issue, acknowledging that allowing abortion-access supporters to drive the narrative can spell disaster even in ruby-red states.

“We’ll certainly be taking it very seriously,” Katie Daniel, state policy director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told The Dispatch. “2022 was totally a wake-up call about how much work we have to inform voters against the lies and deception in these races.”

Will Kentucky Gubernatorial Primary See a Photo Finish?

Republican campaigns and super PACs have spent more than $10 million on advertising ahead of Kentucky’s gubernatorial primary next Tuesday—which could still come down to just a few thousand votes.

Kentucky political insiders say that among the dozen GOP candidates just three are true contenders: Daniel Cameron, the state attorney general; Kelly Craft, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and Canada; and state agriculture commissioner Ryan Quarles. Allies of Cameron and Craft have done the bulk of the spending—each group savaging the other candidate on the airwaves for weeks—while Quarles has positioned himself as the above-the-fray alternative.

All are vying for the chance to challenge incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear in November’s off-year election. That’s a tall order: Beshear consistently ranks as one of the most popular governors in the country. But Kentucky Republicans don’t just want to defeat a red-state Democratic governor—they’d also like to cut into Beshear’s viability as a U.S. Senate candidate when Sen. Mitch McConnell’s seat is up in 2026.

Even at this late stage, Bluegrass State Republicans seem unsure of how the May 16 primary will go. Polling on the GOP primary has been scant, and most have shown Cameron with a solid but not insurmountable lead. The last publicly released poll was from more than a month ago, showing Cameron with just a 6-point lead over Craft, 30 percent to 24 percent, with Quarles in a not-so-distant third place at 15 percent.

None of the campaigns has even leaked their private polling in an attempt to shape the narrative in the primary’s final days—“Which means that Daniel doesn’t want to say how close it is, and Kelly doesn’t want to show that she’s still a little behind,” one Kentucky-based GOP operative told The Dispatch.

Sources in Kentucky who spoke to The Dispatch say they estimate Tuesday’s turnout will be around 300,000, or about 20 percent of registered Republicans. Even small shifts in turnout expectations could change the outcome. 

Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist close to McConnell, said Cameron has been the “clear frontrunner from the start,” buoyed both by an endorsement from Donald Trump and his connections to McConnell’s powerful operation in Kentucky. He won his first election as attorney general in 2019, becoming the second black statewide elected official in Kentucky and the first Republican to hold the office in more than 50 years.

But while the 39-year-old Cameron looks the part of a rising star, his position came under threat from the well-funded Craft, whose husband is coal executive and philanthropist Joe Craft. “Kelly’s certainly spent a level of money here that has made it competitive,” said Jennings.

Most of the GOP ad spending—more than $6.5 million, according to Medium Buying—has gone to boost Craft’s anti-woke bona fides and criticize Cameron as insufficiently conservative. Pro-Cameron ads have hit back at Craft by calling her an “absentee ambassador” and pointing out that despite the fact that she worked for Trump, the former president endorsed Cameron, not Craft.

Eyes on the Trail

  • How GOP donors really feel about Ron DeSantis: There’s been no shortage of headlines in recent weeks detailing Republican benefactors’ fears that DeSantis doesn’t have what it takes to knock out Trump in a primary. In case you missed it, David has a deeply-reported story on the site pulling back the curtain on that donor dynamic: “Donors and consultants connected to them tell The Dispatch those reports are ‘overblown’—though they acknowledge that some are scaling back contributions or hitting pause on more giving. ‘I’ve not heard someone who’s a DeSantis guy saying: ‘I’m leaving.’ But I have seen some who are thinking about him having second thoughts,’ said Eric Levine, an attorney and Republican donor in New York who opposes Trump but has not picked an alternative contender. He added that while the governor is still ‘very viable,’ some donors ‘are just really curious about his strategy.’ ” Read the rest here.
  • Kemp’s got his eye on 2024 … candidates: Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia hosted a three-day donor retreat over the last few days in Sea Island to raise money for Georgia-focused election efforts in 2024, a key presidential battleground Biden carried in 2020. An attendee told The Dispatch that Kemp’s data team presented a poll showing Kemp’s job approval at 57 percent and his job disapproval rate at 36 percent (and a notable 62 percent approval among independents.). Kemp recently told the Wall Street Journal he won’t run for president in 2024, though he’s since made clear he aims to play a major role in helping state and federal candidates across the finish line in 2024 with his federal and state leadership PACs. “If he decides to put his operation behind a 2024 horse it’ll be a major asset in Georgia,” the retreat attendee said.

Notable and Quotable

“We would love to have had her, but we didn’t land her.”

—Sen. Mitch McConnell to CNN on trying to convince Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to become a Republican instead, Monday, May 8

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.