The sharply contrasting responses in separate interviews with The Washington Post over the past week reflect the dueling strategies on abortion in one of the year’s most closely watched gubernatorial races. The race is nearing its end during a simultaneous push to enshrine the right to an abortion in the state’s constitution through a direct vote, setting it apart from other marquee swing-state contests.
After the Supreme Court in June struck down Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion decades ago, states were left to decide laws and restrictions on the procedure. Democrats quickly sought to tap into anger over the ruling and energy in the fight to protect abortion rights in states, giving them hope of beating expectations for a dismal midterm election.
Those hopes have faded in some places, as Democrats across the country grapple with Republican attacks over inflation, crime and an unpopular president. Some in the party have recently voiced concern that they placed too much emphasis on the abortion, amid signs that it is not motivating some voters as much as other issues.
But in Michigan things are different, according to interviews with candidates, operatives, voters and a review of polling. Abortion continues to be top of mind, with Democrats and abortion rights advocates cautiously optimistic that they have an advantage heading into next Tuesday.
That is heavily due to a ballot measure known as Proposal 3, which will determine if Michigan codifies a right to abortion. Abortion rights advocates hope to prevent a 1931 state law that bans abortion even in cases of rape or incest from remaining on the books. A judge granted Whitmer’s request for a temporary restraining order on the enforcement of the law, and in September it was declared unconstitutional and blocked by a state court. But the ballot measure will determine if any restrictions can go into effect in the future, and would guarantee a woman the right to an abortion up until fetal viability.
While both candidates largely focus their remarks on other issues such as the economy and education, Whitmer has mentioned abortion regularly, a strategy that Democrats believe will pay off. Recent polls have shown her with a lead over Dixon, including a CNN survey of likely voters that showed her leading Dixon 52 percent to 46 percent, even as Democrats brace for a difficult election. That same poll showed likely voters favoring changing the state constitution to codify abortion rights, by a margin of 54 percent to 45 percent.
Energy behind the ballot measure is visible in fundraising disparities between organizations on either side of the proposal. Reproductive Freedom for All, an organization supporting abortion rights, has raised nearly $40.3 million, while the antiabortion Citizens to Support Mich. Women and Children has raised $16.9 million.
Whitmer, who had fought the long-dormant law before Roe was struck down, a development that paved the way for its return, said in the interview after a campaign rally here in Flint that Michigan has a chance to go the opposite direction of states that banned or severely restricted access to abortion.
“In other states, those rights are gone, period. Here, we’ve got an opportunity to enshrine these rights,” she said of the ballot measure.
Whitmer was one of the Democrats considered by President Biden to be his running mate in 2020 and has been talked about in Democratic circles as a potential future presidential hopeful. If she wins reelection in a swing state that Trump won in 2016, then Biden won four years later, she will be well-positioned to expand her influence in the party, Democrats say.
In Michigan, Democrats hope the abortion proposal will have a downballot impact as well. Republicans currently hold a majority of seats in both chambers of the state legislature, and Democrats hope it will help them take control. “It really is impacting the conversations we’re having on every race,” said Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow.
Former president Barack Obama recently echoed Whitmer’s urgency at a rally in Detroit. “Here in Michigan, this isn’t even theoretical. Abortion rights are literally on the ballot,” he said, before hitting Dixon for her opposition to the measure.
“Gov. Whitmer’s opponent strongly supports it, a law from 1931. She thinks politicians had the right idea back then. I mean, she probably thinks, if she watched The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s thinking, well, what’s the problem?” Obama said. During the Republican primary, Dixon had praised the law, and said saving the “life of the mother” should be the only exception to abortion bans.
Dixon, at a rally in Livonia, told The Post that Obama’s comparison is “a desperate attempt to get their base out.”
“What a sad thing to say when abortion is on the ballot people can decide it, but it’s also been decided by a judge. So it goes to show that if you continue to push an issue that is not actually an issue in this election, that you don’t have a plan to run on,” she added.
Some of Dixon’s supporters attending the rally said abortion and the ballot-measure vote are top of mind, part of a larger concern that the government is infringing on the rights of parents. Dixon and other antiabortion advocates have claimed the legislation would eliminate parental consent for children seeking abortions, and for those seeking gender therapy.
“We know that Proposal 3 does remove parental consent. It also makes it so that you don’t have to be a doctor to perform an abortion,” Dixon said at the final gubernatorial debate last month.
The ballot measure does not explicitly mention parental consent, and experts say that even if the law is later challenged in the courts, if the measure passes, the parental-consent requirements should survive. Under current state law, parental consent is required for minors seeking abortions.
“It’s confusing. It’s extreme. It’s permanent,” said Christen Pollo, spokesperson for Citizens to Support Mich. Women and Children, the antiabortion group campaigning against Proposal 3.
Amanda McNeff, a nurse practitioner supporting Dixon, said she voted for Biden in 2020 and previously considered herself a Democrat but is now voting Republican in part due to the ballot measure.
She said she is voting against Proposal 3 because she believes it “is where that trans surgery is hiding.” The ballot measure also does not mention gender-affirming care.
For her and other Republican voters who spoke to The Post, the abortion ballot measure is further evidence of Democrats overstepping and more reason to vote against Whitmer.
“The bottom line is, is they want to allow kids 10, 12, 15 to go and have somebody else give them an abortion without telling their parents. So if there’s any harm done to them, and they die, the parents have no recourse,” said Karen Mattson, another Dixon supporter planning to vote against the proposal. “The parents have no say, they have no knowledge of what’s going on with their kids. That’s totally, totally gone.”
Supporters of the measure counter that the proposal would merely return Michigan to the same place it was before Roe was overturned, and have worked to overcome the misinformation surrounding the bill.
“I think asking some people to affirmatively amend the state constitution comes with a unique challenge,” said Loren Khogali, the executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
The ACLU was involved with the ballot measure from before the overturning of Roe. If it is successful, Khogali said, it could provide a blueprint for other states looking to take a direct vote on abortion rather than leave it up to Congress or state legislatures.
While canvassing in Canton with other supporters of the ballot measure, a man raking leaves outside his home asked Khogali about how a “yes” vote would impact parental consent.
“There’s nothing that interferes with the laws that are in place regarding parental consent,” she responded. “Just like any medical care that you seek it requires parental consent and will continue to be regulated that way.”
For Karen Szkutnik, who wore a “Pumpkin Spice and Reproductive Rights” T-shirt to the Canton canvassing event, the measure is personal.
“I had a late abortion at 20 weeks, my baby had a condition and was going to die right after birth,” she said.
When she recently retired from her job in health care, she says everyone asked what she was going to do with her newfound time.
“And I said, I’m not doing anything other than help the campaign until Election Day.”
Rachel Roubein in Washington contributed to this report.