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For Maine Democrats and beyond, hope is in a place like Kansas

Supreme Court Abortion Kansas
Charlie Riedel
Zoe Schell, from Topeka, Kan., stands on the steps of the Kansas Statehouse during a rally to protest the Supreme Court's ruling on abortion Friday, June 24, 2022, in Topeka. The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years in a decision by its conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade.

In this week’s Pulse: Democrats find hope in Kansas, the Reproductive Freedom For All Act, Green Party co-founder dies, and leftovers from the notebook.

With fewer than 100 days left before the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats locally and nationally are beginning to express a sentiment rare in recent months: hope.

Since late last year, the conventional wisdom has been that Democrats are facing a brutal election landscape. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have been on the decline, inflation and high energy prices siphoned voters’ wallets and Republicans were highly motivated to avenge losses they took in 2020.


But recent polling in Maine and nationally suggests Republican efforts to chain Democratic gubernatorial and legislative candidates to Biden and economic worries hasn’t quite worked — at least not yet. Even congressional Democrats up for reelection this year are increasingly upbeat that a combination of falling gas prices and GOP candidates representing the most extreme wing of the modern conservative coalition will help them escape a 2010- or 2014-like wipeout. (In fact, the Democratic organization backing U.S. House candidates is spending to prop up Christian nationalists, 2020 election deniers and assorted conspiracy theorists in GOP primaries in the hope that voters will reject them in the November election — a controversial tactic, especially if it backfires.)

But if there’s a single issue helping to lift the malaise of Democratic despair, it’s the battle over abortion rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning nearly 50 years of abortion protections has pushed the issue to the states, where legislatures and governors are now responsible for either outlawing, restricting or protecting access to the procedure. That has put the focus on gubernatorial and legislative races because the outcomes could determine a state’s abortion policy, whether it’s in a permissive state like Maine, or a restrictive one like Wyoming.

This week voters in deep-red Kansas overwhelmingly rejected an effort to remove abortion protections from their state constitution. It was a stunning result, but one that validated a slew of national polls showing that outlawing abortion or severly restricting access is deeply unpopular with the American public.

The Kansas referendum was held during a primary election that was expected to feature low turnout dominated by Republicans. Instead, turnout was extraordinarily high, closely mirroring general election participation. Abortion-rights supporters registered new voters and they also overcame a late and deceptive text campaign by a GOP-aligned firm that attempted to trick abortion-rights supporters to vote to remove protections.

In the end, Kansas voters rejected the amendment by nearly 20 percentage points.

The result reverberated across the country as Democrats framed it as evidence that conservatives’ decadeslong quest to restrict or ban abortion isn’t just out of step with voters in blue or purple states, but everywhere else.

“The message that sent is clear: the American people WILL NOT let the GOP strip away their reproductive freedoms,” tweeted Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is facing Republican Ed Thelander this year.

Like other Maine Republicans on the ballot, Thelander has been cagey about what, if any, abortion restrictions he might support. He has described himself as “respecting the sanctity of life.”

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who is engaged in a tough reelection fight against former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, an abortion opponent, also tweeted about the Kansas referendum, tagging that state’s Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

“Kansas’s vote last night made one thing clear -- a woman’s right to choose is non negotiable. Abortion is on the ballot this election, and Democratic governors like myself and @LauraKellyKS are the first line of defense. We cannot go back.”

The reaction from abortion opponents in Maine bordered on crestfallen.

“The defeat of this effort is evidence that we haven’t yet reached the promised land,” Carroll Conley of the Christian Civic League of Maine said in the group’s weekly newsletter.

CCLM’s newsletter went on to say that the Kansas result wasn’t entirely unexpected, but that it underscored the need for policy restraint should the upcoming election provide the group with a majority of anti-abortion state legislators.

“Especially in a relatively progressive state like Maine, our legislative strategy must be incremental while we continue to educate Mainers and build up already-existing alternatives to abortion,” the newsletter stated. “Neither of these are hard to do. The more a person thinks about an unborn child, the more difficult it is to avoid believing in that child’s humanity.”

CCLM is influential in the Maine Republican Party, which this year adopted a platform firmly opposing abortion — a decision routinely cited by Democratic activists hoping to frame GOP candidates as patriarchal busybodies eager to interfere with a woman’s private health decisions.

While Democrats viewed the Kansas result as evidence that abortion is a winning issue for them, election analysts urged caution.

Amy Walter, editor of the Cook Political Report, noted that the Kansas result is definitely a positive sign for Democrats, but also warned that voters will feel “more cross-pressured this fall when they are voting not on a specific amendment, but on candidates.”

In other words, just because a voter supports abortion rights doesn’t mean they’ll also vote exclusively for Democrats.

Speaking of abortion

Earlier this week, Sen. Susan Collins joined three of her colleagues – Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – to unveil the latest legislative response to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

The bill’s prospects look bleak, however, given the 50/50 split in the Senate.

Dubbed the Reproductive Freedom For All Act, the bill aims to restore access to abortions across the country by prohibiting states from imposing “an undue burden on the ability of a woman to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability.”

The bill would also protect access to contraception nationwide. But controversially, the proposal would allow states to regulate abortions post-viability – which today is generally regarded as starting around 23 weeks – as long as those laws don’t prohibit later abortions needed to protect the life or health of the woman.

Collins said American women should have the same basic rights regardless of where they live

“By reinstating — neither expanding nor restricting — the longstanding legal framework for reproductive rights in this country, our bill would preserve abortion access along with basic conscience protections that are relied upon by health care providers who have religious objections,” Collins said in a statement.

The bill is more expansive than an earlier proposal put forward by Collins and Murkowski because it seeks to incorporate the findings of a broader swath of federal cases involving abortion and reproductive health. That earlier bill also did not deal with access to contraception.

Notwithstanding its bipartisan list of co-sponsors, this latest bill appears headed to the same congressional stalemate as other abortion bills. That’s because it takes 60 votes to get around the filibuster, and none of Collins’ and Murkowski’s 48 GOP colleagues are rushing to support it.

In fact, Kaine is having trouble with some of his Democratic colleagues.

“The Kaine-Collins bill does not codify Roe,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told NBC News earlier this week. Warren added that “this bill is not an obvious improvement over where we stand right now.”

Likewise, Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois said the bill doesn’t “fully [guarantee] a woman’s right to reproductive choice,” according to Politico.

And the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America dismissed it as “just another political stunt.”

“Unless these senators are willing to end the filibuster to pass this measure, there’s no reason to take it seriously,” Mini Timmaraju said in a statement.

Of course, the same question about ending the filibuster could be asked of senators supporting the bill that NARAL, Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups point to as the best response to the Dobbs decision. In addition to codifying Roe, the Women’s Health Protection Act would prohibit a slew of other abortion-related state laws on issues like parental notification and mandatory waiting periods.

The Democratic-controlled House has passed the WHPA twice but it appears unlikely to even get 50 votes, never mind 60. Collins has opposed the bill, saying it is too broad and doesn’t protect religious or conscience exemptions among health care workers.

Green Party co-founder dies

The Green Party movement, in Maine and nationally, lost an influential voice this past week.

John Rensenbrink co-organized what was believed to be the first Green Party meeting in the U.S. in Augusta in the fall of 1983.

Rensenbrink, 93, would go on to co-found what is now Maine’s Green Independent Party, the national Green Party and the international Global Green Network.

"John Rensenbrink for decades embodied the best of American progressive politics linking thought to action, and motivating Greens from the local to the national and international levels," Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and Green Party presidential candidate, said in a statement.

A former Bowdoin College professor who authored numerous books on political transformation, Rensenbrink ran for U.S. Senate in 1996 in a race won by a young Susan Collins. But he stayed involved in Green and progressive politics in Maine and internationally for decades.

The Green Party of the United States described Rensenbrink this week as “prime mover and leader of an independent political party dedicated to ecology, social and economic justice, democracy, and nonviolence.”

More locally, Rensenbrink fought for years to close the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset. He and wife, Carla, also co-founded the Cathance River Education Alliance and conserved acreage in their hometown of Topsham.

Leftovers from the notebook

  • Sen. Collins and 24 Republicans announced support for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip this week to Taiwan, a visit that angered China, which promptly ordered its military to conduct live-fire exercises near the island. The joint statement said the visit was consistent with the United States’ One China policy, which essentially affirms the U.S. has formal ties with China and not the island of Taiwan. China considers the island a breakaway province that should be reunited with the mainland.
  • Gov. Mills has taken a lot of heat from fellow Democrats over her opposition to legislation that would recognize the sovereignty of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes. But her reelection opponent, LePage, made it clear this week that he wouldn’t have negotiated with the tribes at all. LePage told the Bangor Daily News after an appearance before the Bangor Rotary that the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act negotiated by the tribes and the state is a “done deal.” “You don’t reinvent the wheel every time you need more money,” LePage said. “They negotiated fairly, and it took a long time and now they want to reopen it because they want more.”
  • In 2016, LePage inked a deal with Quebec to create a corridor of electric car charging stations, which he framed as vital to the state’s tourism industry. Mills has tried to build out the charging infrastructure further to encourage more Mainers to purchase EVs. But twice in the past two months, LePage has taken a puzzling tack in criticizing Mills’ plan to have 150,000 electric cars in the state by 2030. He railed against the initiative in a story for Breitbart, telling the far-right outlet, “She wants to have 150,000 electric vehicles by 2030, but the only thing she’s investing in for energy is solar, so if people use their cars during the day, and you want to charge them at night, how you gonna charge ’em? There’s no sun, so maybe some energy from the moon or something.” It’s not clear why LePage thinks Mills’ EV initiative is incompatible with her solar initiative. The latter doesn’t mean electricity for EVs — or anything else — is only available during the day. LePage made similar remarks during a campaign event in Westbrook and implied that EVs are day-use only “because you’re only going to use your car during the day when it's sunny out.” EVs run on batteries, day or night.
  • Mills released the first two television ads of her reelection campaign this week, both of which could resonate with a key voting demographic: working moms. The first focuses on “the chaos of raising five girls while working full time” after Mills married her late widower husband. The second ad highlights how Mills was the first woman to serve as both attorney general and governor in Maine while calling attention to her administration’s work to increase K-12 funding, manage the pandemic and send checks to families to help them deal with inflation.
  • Last week, we mentioned that the Maine CDC’s Dr. Nirav Shah had told a reporter for Down East magazine that he planned to stay in Maine and that he “might even run for office” as a way to get back at unfriendly Twitter trolls. It sounded like a joke from a man known for his ability to be both serious and affable during his many, many COVID-19 briefings. And this week, he told a Bangor Daily News reporter in Aroostook County that it was “an off-hand comment” and that his only focus is “implementing where Gov. Mills wants to go with public health.”

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week political correspondents Steve Mistler and Kevin Miller and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse