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How Democrats are running on abortion in California

IRVINE, Calif. — California Democrats are going all in on abortion in the Golden State, betting that the prospect of national restrictions on reproductive health care will motivate voters in key House races.

California — with its wealth of competitive House races — will be a fascinating testing ground for how the politics of abortion will play out in a deep-blue state two years after the end of Roe v. Wade.

Vulnerable House Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping that California’s strong statewide abortion protections will render the issue moot in 2024.

Last cycle, the abortion rights playbook didn’t work as well for Democrats in liberal states. But on the trail in southern California, Democrats told us that voters are worried a Republican-controlled federal government would enact severe anti-abortion policies.

“Unlike the midterms, when people felt they were safe in California and New York, in 2024, there is no safe place in the United States if Calvert and his allies take control of the federal government,” said Will Rollins, who’s running against Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.).

In 2022, California overwhelmingly passed Proposition 1, which enshrined reproductive freedom protections in the state constitution. Some candidates told us they still have to work hard to tell everyday voters that this won’t save the state from a national ban.

“There’s a misunderstanding that the general public thinks and believes that because we live in California, we’re protected,” Derek Tran, who’s running against Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) told us. “But a national ban is a national ban, and it’s all about educating the voters out there that this could possibly come true.”

Given there aren’t 60 votes for a national ban in the Senate, this means getting into the filibuster and whether Senate Republicans may do away with it if they’re elected.

“If they get control of Congress, if they get control of the presidency, who’s to say how far Republicans will go?” Democrat Dave Min told us. “The filibuster is a norm that is a reversible rule. Have we ever seen Republicans abide by long-standing rules?”

Republicans maintain that the Democratic argument on abortion rights won’t hit home with voters in California.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) typified the GOP position when he told us “the abortion issue is not the front burner issue” in his race.

“The reality is that if you want an abortion in California, it’s full-term rights all the way through,” Garcia said. “That’s the law of the land, whether we agree with it or not.”

“I don’t think abortion in California is going to be that big of an issue as some Democrats think,” Calvert added.

But it’s increasingly clear Republicans are seeing their party’s reproductive rights positions as untenable. Steel, for instance, removed herself as a cosponsor from the Life at Conception Act after criticism that the bill threatened access to IVF.

“I’m pro-life with three exceptions,” Steel, who used IVF to conceive, told us. “And then I took my name off from that bill because there was confusion after the Alabama court decision.”

Taking a step back, the divergence here between the Democratic and Republican strategies is staggering.

Garcia’s challenger, former NASA aide and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, said voters in the district “are just scared of a ban.” The fear runs so deep, Whitesides said, that “it’s not an issue that our side needs to explain.”

Garcia has the complete opposite view.

“The abortion thing is what the DCCC is gonna try to run against me. They’re ineffective, so that’s fantastic. They should keep doing the same things that have lost every time,” Garcia said. “I’ve been very clear that I have no intentions of supporting a national ban. So it’s a phantom ghost that they’re trying to create to compel people to go vote.”

— Max Cohen

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.