Is abortion a game-changer for Senate Democrats? A test case

Back when it seemed like a huge Republican wave was forming, Washington Sen. Patty Murray was among those at risk of being swept away.

At 71, Murray is far from her courageous campaign of 1992, when the self-proclaimed mum in tennis shoes took on “guys in red ties and dark suits” and picked up an upset victory.

Now it’s Republican Tiffany Smiley, 41 and mother of three, who has the fresh face and the advantage of being a Beltway underdog.

Smiley’s prodigious fundraising and inspirational story as a triage nurse and fighter for disabled veterans like her husband has Republicans are hoping Washington will elect its first GOP senator since Bill Clinton was in the White House.
It could still happen.

But the June Supreme Court ruling overturning the constitutional right to abortion threw Murray a vital lifeline, as it has Democrats across the country, increasing his chances of riding out the backlash that incumbents typically face in a midterm election when their party holds the White House.

“It woke up a sleepy Democratic segment of the electorate that wasn’t paying much attention or buying into the ‘red wave’ and felt they were going to get crushed,” said Stuart Elway, a nonpartisan pollster at Seattle. “It added a bit of a boost to his campaign.”

The GOP still looks likely to take control of the House, as Republicans only need five seats held by Democrats. But gains of 35 or more seats, which once seemed entirely plausible, now seem out of reach.

The 50-50 Senate check appears to be a toss-up, which is better than it looked for Democrats before the High Court brought the issue of abortion to the fore by handing over regulation to individual states. Since then, almost half have reduced or decided to ban the procedure.

The Democrats are betting heavily on the issue.

The party has already spent more than $124 million this year on TV ads mentioning abortion, more than double the next issue – the character – and nearly 20 times more than Democrats have spent on related advertising abortion during the 2018 midterm campaign, according to the Associated Press.

The investment in abortion-related ads was greater, the AP reported, than the GOP’s combined spending on spots related to the economy, crime and immigration, which the party would rather point out.

Murray, who is seeking his sixth term, is among those who have sought most aggressively to leverage the Supreme Court’s ruling. Abortion has been legal in Washington state since voters approved a 1970 ballot measure — more than two years before the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

“It would only take one vote in Congress to make abortion a crime and punish women and doctors all over the country, even in Washington,” a narrator declares urgently – and hyperbolically – in one of the Murray advertisements. (Adopt a national ban would almost certainly require more than a single vote, even if the Senate remained tied at 50-50, given the need for 60 votes to overcome an inevitable filibuster.)

“Don’t give them a chance,” the ad concludes. “Oppose Tiffany Smiley before it’s too late.”

The spot is part of a larger effort to paint Smiley, which calls itself “100% pro-life,” as extreme.

Murray also ran an ad filled with graphic images of Jan. 6 which recounted his chilling experience on Capitol Hill the day pro-Trump insurgents sought to overturn President Biden’s victory. “Democracy,” Murray said solemnly, “is on the ballot.”

Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley speaks into a microphone against a backdrop of American flags.

Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley speaks at a Republican Party event on Primary Election Day, Aug. 28, 2019. 2, in Issaquah, Washington.

(Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Like many Blue State Republicans, Smiley chose his path carefully throughout the primary season, seeking to avoid the MAGA label without incurring the wrath of Trump loyalists. Since advancing through Washington’s top-two system — she finished second to Murray — Smiley has performed a bit of cosmetic surgery on her website, removing a section that questioned the integrity of the 2020 vote.

But her most blunt attempt to steer towards the political center came in a TV spot in which Smiley looks directly at the camera and declares her opposition to a federal ban on abortion. (She said she respects the will of Washington voters and the law they enacted decades ago.)

In soothing earth tones, as a guitar strums softly in the background, Smiley asks, “What’s extreme?” Thirty years in the Senate and nothing to show for it.

“Patty Murray wants to scare you,” she concludes. “I want to serve you.”

In a later spot, Smiley attacks her Democratic rival by marrying the problems of crime and inflation.

“These doors are closed because it’s too dangerous to ask employees to still work here,” Smiley says as she stands in front of a shuttered, graffiti-covered Starbucks in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. “You can’t even get a cup of coffee at your hometown store…even if you could still afford it.”

The August primary saw an exceptionally high turnout of women and young voters, part of a pattern across the country since the Supreme Court rendered its decision on abortion.

Cathy Allen, a Democratic strategist who teaches political science at the University of Washington in Seattle, was struck by the attitude of students who aren’t particularly fond of big political parties or by the slow manner in which elected leaders have approached concerns such as climate change.

The decision to abort angered and energized them — “They have this sense of injustice,” Allen said — and prompted some otherwise discouraged or apathetic people to vote.

Whether that kind of passion persists or whether fears of inflation and recession trump the abortion issue and drag Biden and his fellow Democrats down will determine not only whether Washington gets a new senator, but which party controls the room for the next two years.

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