RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Democratic candidates have decried North Carolina’s newly reinstated abortion restrictions after a federal judge allowed a state law banning nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy to go into effect.
But some North Carolina Democrats say the ruling earlier this month — the latest fallout of the June U.S. Supreme Court decision eliminating federal abortion protections — might be the catalyst their party needed to reinvigorate its political prospects in what was shaping up to be a losing year.
“I do think it’s a blessing in disguise for Democrats," said Morgan Jackson, consultant to powerful North Carolina Democrats like Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein. “It was a horrible policy decision that set back decades and decades of progress for women, but at that same time, it has given Democrats a renewed optimism about this year.”
U.S. District Judge William Osteen ruled Aug. 17 that the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade erased the legal foundation for his 2019 ruling that had placed an injunction on the 1973 state law banning abortions after 20 weeks. Though the law allows leeway for urgent medical emergencies that threaten the patient’s life or “create serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment,” it does not grant exceptions for rape or incest.
The judge's decision comes as North Carolina is preparing to vote this fall on its entire state legislature, two state supreme court races, all 14 U.S. House seats and a high-profile U.S. Senate contest.
Democrats have dreamed for years of replicating their 2008 success when the state went blue for president, governor and U.S. Senate. Although the current governor is a Democrat, Republicans have dominated both chambers of the legislature since 2011, allowing them to advance a conservative agenda that includes abortion restrictions. That dominance held even in 2020 despite a massive effort by Democrats to wrest control of the General Assembly. Republicans are now just five seats shy of the supermajority they need to nullify the Democratic governor's veto.
Now less than 100 days out from the election, the question for North Carolina Democrats is whether outrage over diminishing abortion access in one of the South’s few remaining safe havens can generate enough political momentum for the party to hold its ground.
National organizations are already funneling money into the state's tightest races. Hours before the 20-week ban resumed, Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading reproductive health care provider and an abortion rights advocacy organization, announced North Carolina would be one of the target states where it's spending a record $50 million ahead of the midterm elections.
Democratic candidates have portrayed the 20-week limit as the first of many restrictions to come if Republican state lawmakers gain veto-proof margins.
“If they are successful in their efforts, they will not stop here,” said Democratic state Rep. Julie von Haefen of Apex, a fast-growing Raleigh suburb, who unseated her Republican opponent in a close race in 2018. “Voters across the state must know that the true goal of politicians behind this ban on abortion later in pregnancy is to ban abortion entirely.”
Duke University public policy professor Mac McCorkle, a former adviser to Democratic Govs. Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue, said voters were already motivated by the June 24 Supreme Court ruling that gave states the right to determine abortion access. Then the local ban — which state Republican leaders had encouraged the judge to reinstate — removed for many voters the illusion of protection in North Carolina.
And there's certainly evidence of that playing out with at least some female voters, like North Carolina State University sophomore Emma Morgan, 19, who recently returned to Raleigh for school from her family home in Maryland.
“I’d literally just moved back here from Maryland, and they’re like, bam, you don’t have these rights anymore,” Morgan said. “It pulled the rug out from under us and got me and other out-of-state students wondering, should we transfer before it gets worse?”
About 30,000 North Carolina residents have registered to vote since the Supreme Court abortion ruling, with women slightly outnumbering men, according to state Board of Elections data. Democratic strategists expect suburban, college educated women will be a key demographic in deciding the makeup of North Carolina’s legislature in November and that abortion will be an important issue for them.
In Holly Springs, another suburb of Raleigh, Democratic state Sen. Sydney Batch is working to defend her seat in what is shaping up to be one of state's tightest races — one where abortion could tip the scale.
Holly Springs resident Gaile Valcho, a 58-year-old mother and autism outreach coordinator who plans to vote for Batch, said she knows several local mothers who faced complications with their pregnancies and feel personally connected to this issue.
“Politics aside, I think this was a wakeup call for women who, of course, know their bodies better than any lawmaker ever could," Valcho said.
Abortion access is also expected to play a key role in the state's hotly contested U.S. Senate race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, who is backed by former President Donald Trump. North Carolina is one of the few states where Democrats have a strong shot at flipping a seat in the 50-50 chamber, making Beasley's campaign a vital component of the party's plan to codify abortion rights into federal law.
Republicans, for their part, say abortion access won't be as crucial an issue as Democrats hope. And they aren't shying away from proposing even more stringent anti-abortion measures.
North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore has said he would support legislation banning abortions once an ultrasound first detects fetal cardiac activity — typically about six weeks after fertilization and before many patients know they’re pregnant.
Senate leader Phil Berger hasn't gone that far — he would prefer to restrict abortions after roughly the first three months of pregnancy. But he also says he's not worried that the abortion rulings could hurt Republicans’ chance of clinching a supermajority. North Carolina voters are more concerned with Democrats’ economic policies, he says.
Though her seat is likely not in jeopardy, state Sen. Natalie Murdock, of Durham, is part of an organized effort to help other Democrats hold their seats in tight legislative races. Their strategy, she said, is to amplify Republicans' own ideas for more “extreme” restrictions.
“Our message to voters is, we need that balance in government because we have razor thin barriers that prevent us from being back in a superminority,” Murdock said. “The Democratic strategy is going to show the majority leaders are not moderate. They are extreme. And the 20-week ban will just be a start.”
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/H_Schoenbaum.
Hannah Schoenbaum, The Associated Press