Hawley said the end of Roe would bring political change. Will it hurt him in November?

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, Sen. Josh Hawley predicted the decision would bring transformational change to American politics.

Now, for the first time since that court ruling, Hawley is caught up in that transformation.

Hawley, a Missouri Republican, is up for reelection in a state that has one of the strictest abortion laws in the country, further than Hawley himself supports. The procedure is banned even for victims of rape and incest.

The first-term senator could be on the same ballot as a measure to enshrine abortion rights in the Missouri Constitution and a presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, whose allies are seeking to strengthen federal limitations on the procedure.

How Hawley navigates the abortion issue may determine whether he pays a political price at the ballot box. Hawley won election in 2018 by a margin of nearly six percentage points and Democrats will attempt to use Hawley’s views on abortion to eat into his support.

Once a bellwether, Missouri has become reliably Republican in the six years since Hawley defeated former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018. But Democrats have seized on abortion rights in conservative states like Kansas and Kentucky to help win gubernatorial races and defeat ballot initiatives aimed at further restricting abortion rights.

Hawley has said he believes abortion laws should be decided by the states and he supports the idea of Missourians voting on abortion rights. But he has also said he believes a measure to allow abortion in the state will fail.

“In my lifetime, nothing that any voter in my state has ever voted on has mattered with regard to abortion,” Hawley said after the Dobbs ruling in 2022. “Because we’ve never had any say. The voters of Missouri and every other state now, what they decide on this is going to be law. And that’s a big change.”

Still, Hawley also supports federal measures to limit abortion and signed on to a bill to ban the procedure after 15 weeks, months after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. It’s unlikely such a ban would be able to make it through the U.S. Senate, where it would require bipartisan support to pass.

Hawley’s campaign declined to comment on the record for this article.

Should Trump win the White House in November, anti-abortion activists are looking beyond Congress. A policy plan written compiled by scores of key conservative activists, called Project 2025, called the Dobbs ruling “just the beginning” of the conservative effort to prevent abortion.

With the absence of Roe setting a legal requirement for how far the federal government can go to restrict abortion, activists are advocating for a Republican president to use executive power to block abortion pills, restrict travel for abortion and back off from defending abortion rights in the courts.

“It’s clear that a lot can be done,” said Kristi Hamrick, the vice president for media and policy at Students for Life, an anti-abortion group. “From the use of the bully pulpit, to the use of regulatory power, to the use of personnel. There’s a lot that can be done.”

One key target – abortion pills.

Medication abortion counts for more than half of the abortions performed in the United States. In 2021, the FDA made it easier for women to access medication abortion by no longer requiring in-person doctor visits to receive the two pills – mifepristone, then misoprostol – at home.

The rule change has made it possible for abortion clinics in states where the procedure is legal to mail pills to people in states where the procedure is illegal. The New York Times reported that clinics in states like Massachusetts have even been protected against criminal charges by their state government.

Anti-abortion advocates are pushing for a Republican administration to restrict or eliminate the use of medication abortion.

One way is through enforcement of the Comstock Act, a 1873 federal law which prohibits the mailing of obscene material, including anything used for contraception or abortion. The Supreme Court ruled that law does not apply to birth control, but a case, led by Erin Morrow Hawley, argues that the Comstock Act should apply to medication abortion.

Morrow Hawley, who works with the Alliance Defending Freedom and is married to Sen. Hawley, is leading a case before the Supreme Court next month on behalf of a group of doctors who argue that mifepristone is not safe enough for FDA approval. She has already won partial victories focused on safeguards for the drug in lower courts.

The case is among the first significant legal challenges pushing the Supreme Court to go further in restricting access to abortion. In a column last June in the WORLD News Group, a religious news organization, Morrow Hawley called her case “hope on the horizon” in the struggle against chemical abortion pills.

“Yet the fact that many states still allow elective abortions under a regime more extreme than Roe underscores the need to change hearts and minds,” Morrow Hawley wrote. “We must not only make abortion unlawful—but also unthinkable.”

Already, Democrats have highlighted the anti-abortion advocacy of the Hawley family. Lucas Kunce, a Democrat running for Senate, has said he plans to make abortion rights a significant part of his campaign against Hawley, should he win the Democratic primary in August.

He has framed the issue as a way that Hawley wants to “control” the people of Missouri.

“This is him,” Kunce said in an interview with The Star. “This is his life. This is his crusade. This is his family’s business. This is what they do. This will be a referendum on him and abortion at the same time.”

The November election may also contain a referendum on abortion rights in Missouri. Activists are currently circulating a petition that would make the procedure legal in the state, but would allow restrictions after “fetal viability.”

Jared Young, an independent candidate running for Senate, said he supports the referendum but thinks it should be one decided by the individual states.

“I always felt like the national mandate that Roe created was a mistake,” Young said. “This divisive, emotional issue, this is exactly the kind of issue that the founders envisioned this laboratory of democracy, federalist system for. And so Missouri will decide for Missouri.”

Activists have until May to collect around 170,000 signatures – 8% of voters in two thirds of six out of Missouri’s eight congressional districts.

And while advocates point to the success of abortion rights groups against ballot measures in Kansas and Kentucky, the Missouri ballot measure will be different.

Instead of rejecting ballot language that would allow state legislatures to create stiffer abortion regulations, Missourians will be asked to reverse the existing law that prevents abortions in the state.

Jean Evans, the former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, said if the measure makes it on the ballot, she expects that it would increase turnout among suburban women and young women, just as it has in other states.

But she said she doesn’t think the issue will cost Hawley the election.

“It’s a double digit, conservative state,” Evans said. “That would be an awful lot for a challenger against Josh Hawley, who is extremely popular amongst Republicans. I know that Democrats don’t like him, but Josh Hawley is arguably one of, if not the most, popular Republican in Missouri politics.”

In 2022 Democrats nominated Trudy Busch Valentine, from the family that owned Anheuser-Busch, in a year where abortion rights were the focus of Democratic candidates across the country. Busch Valentine lost the race by more than 13 percentage points.

Still, Democratic groups are centering abortion rights again in 2024, amid a presidential election where two widely unpopular candidates are expected to be at the top of the ballot.

“When Republicans tell you who they are, believe them,” said Danni Wang, a spokeswoman with Emily’s List, an advocacy group that focuses on electing women who favor abortion rights.

“They want to pass a national abortion ban and if they had their way, they would absolutely pass a national abortion ban with no exceptions. This is certainly the case in the plans that they’ve telegraphed.”