Exclusive-As 2024 election approaches, White House jumps into states' abortion battles
By Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House is jumping into state-level battles for women's reproductive rights, lending legal and messaging advice to allies in states pushing restrictions as the Biden administration seeks to make abortion access a rallying cry in next year's presidential election.
By leaning on key local lawmakers and backing legislation to expand abortion rights, the White House is hoping to expand on the relative success that Democrats earned in the midterm elections by making abortion a large part of their campaign.
The White House's Gender Policy Council is spearheading the effort, along with an inter-governmental affairs team and Vice President Kamala Harris's office, sources said. The groups regularly hold strategy meetings with local elected officials, activists and reproductive rights groups.
The White House has divided fights for abortion rights in states as politically divergent as Texas, New York and North Carolina into three broad categories and has established an approach for each, according to two White House officials and two advisers working on the issue.
"The goal of our strategy is fairly simple: it's to support actions by state and local leaders to protect and expand access, but it's also to fight restrictions," said one of the officials.
The previously unreported, behind-the-scenes effort has caught the attention of state lawmakers for the level of support offered by the administration.
In some cases, the White House is leaning on key lawmakers in states with important abortion-related legislative fights this session. North Carolina is a special focus where the White House thinks it has the opportunity to fend off restrictions, one of the White House officials said.
Republican lawmakers in North Carolina are working on more restrictive abortion laws than the state's current 20-week ban and they hold a veto-proof majority in the state Senate. In the state House, the margins are very narrow.
"We've been in touch with specific legislators who are going to be really important in this fight," the official said.
Some of the state's Democrats have had different voting records on abortion but have all now committed to codifying abortion rights, the official added.
In Florida, state House Democratic leader Fentrice Driskell said in her meetings with White House officials topics discussed include voter turnout and how that is driven by states putting abortion on the ballot.
Other discussions focused on how Florida Democrats could use partners such as reproductive rights groups to make abortion a key issue in 2024, she said.
"For the White House to reach out the way that it did, to say we're here to be as much of a backstop as we can be, to provide whatever resources we can, to try to assemble and convene state and local leaders from all across the country, it has meant a lot," Driskell said .
She said the White House's work on issuing talking points and messaging has also been a "big help."
To combat restrictions, the White House coordinates with national organizations working to defeat potential bans, is getting the vice president to travel to such states to bring stakeholders together and uses its press contacts to spotlight legislative fights at critical moments.
Harris, who won praise from grassroots Democrats for her frequent defense of abortion rights during the midterm campaign, is a key part of the current White House effort.
Harris traveled to Indiana during a special legislative session last summer to ban abortion. The ban passed but was placed on hold due to a court order. U.S. officials and abortion-rights advocates credited Harris' visit with sparking state-wide debate on how to draw the lines on abortion access.
'BATTLEGROUND, EXTREMIST, PROACTIVE'
Since last summer's Supreme Court repeal of the Roe v. Wade ruling that ended the nationwide right to abortion, many Republican-controlled states are pushing to further restrict abortion access, while states run by Democrats are enshrining protections in new laws.
Republicans have largely shrugged off White House efforts at beating back efforts to limit abortion rights. The Republican National Committee (RNC) has urged affiliated lawmakers and campaigns to go on the offense on abortion.
When asked to comment about the White House's latest initiative, the RNC pointed Reuters toward a resolution it passed at a meeting in January.
The resolution directed national and state lawmakers "to pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible" ahead of the 2024 election cycle, citing six-week abortion bans as an example.
The White House sees three different approaches to defend abortions rights and has broken down states into what they call either "battleground," "extremist" or "proactive" states, White House officials and advisors say.
The White House views "extremist states" as those that have already banned abortion and where there are plans for further restrictions such as Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Idaho, the officials said.
Most abortions are now banned in 13 states as new laws take effect following the Roe decision.
In what it calls "access battleground states," the White House is tracking fights this legislative session that could reduce reproductive care access. These states include North Carolina, Nebraska, Florida, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
In "proactive states" such as Michigan, Minnesota, New York, California, Connecticut, the White House is working with pro-abortion rights state lawmakers who are backing legislation with funding for women and protections for abortion patients and providers.
One reason for the White House's plans to push on abortion is that efforts in Congress to pass nationwide abortion protections have failed. And a lawsuit over abortion pills is being closely watched for its impact on reproductive care.
Focus on the issue helped energize Democratic voters and staved off some defeats for the party in the midterm elections.
Edison Research exit polls found that for one-quarter of voters, abortion was the primary concern and 61% opposed the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.
Harris has spoken to 200 Democratic state legislators on reproductive rights and convened leaders from 38 states in dozens of meetings since the decision, the officials said.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Trevor Hunnicutt and Alistair Bell)