On the trail: Will abortion ban hang over a Sununu 2022 campaign?

For the Monitor
Published: 6/26/2021 1:45:25 PM

The legislative battle over New Hampshire’s budget is over, but the campaign fight is just beginning.

“Historic tax cuts, property tax relief, and Paid Family Medical Leave delivered all in one sweeping action is a win for every citizen and family in this state,” three-term GOP Gov. Chris Sununu said minutes after the Republican-controlled state House and Senate passed along party lines a $13.5 billion two-year budget and an accompanying piece of legislation filled with controversial policy provisions. On Friday, after signing the budget, he repeated the same statement.

The only thing Sununu left out was the exclamation points.

The policy provisions in what several GOP state lawmakers called the most conservative state budget in decades include a ban on abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy along with a requirement that all women receive an ultrasound before having an abortion, a school voucher program, and a gag rule on teaching about “divisive concepts,” such as critical race theory.

Sununu – who’s mulling whether to run for reelection next year, launch a Republican challenge against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, or return to the private sector – has taken incoming fire from Democrats for weeks after saying he wouldn’t veto the budget over the abortion provisions. On Friday, his signature made it official.

Now Democrats are going to do everything in their power to make sure Sununu pays the price in next year’s elections.

“We will fight, we will rise,” New Hampshire Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy vowed after the budget passed on Thursday.

New Hampshire is one of the least restrictive states when it comes to abortion laws. More than 40 states prohibit abortion after a specific point in pregnancy, except when necessary to protect the woman’s life. No time limits exist on the procedure in the Granite State.

Emily’s List – the powerful national organization that supports female Democratic candidates that back abortion rights – has targeted Sununu twice since he said a couple of weeks ago that he wouldn’t veto the budget over the abortion language.

Plus, Amplify NH, a newly formed progressive non-profit group, put a mobile billboard in front of the State House hours before the budget votes, urging Granite Staters to call the governor’s office to “Stop Sununu’s abortion ban.”

“Amplify New Hampshire is going to be engaged on holding the governor accountable for this budget and the provisions in it – and that goes for everything from an attack on reproductive rights to tax cuts for the very wealthy at the expense of Granite Staters,” Craig Brown, the group’s executive director, told the Monitor after the budget cleared both chambers of the Legislature.

New Hampshire is one of seven states with no gestational limit on abortion procedures.

“It’s time that we stop being extreme and join 43 other states in deciding that there needs to be a limit,” Republican state Sen. Sharon Carson said.

The language in the budget makes no exception for rape or incest, or for fetal viability. While it would permit medical providers to remove a fetus that has died, there are criminal and civil penalties – including prison sentences – for health care providers who conduct abortions after 24 weeks.

While no statewide data is available, abortion providers say procedures after 24 weeks are extremely rare, and usually performed only when a severe fetal abnormality is spotted late in a pregnancy.

Facing questions over the abortion provisions this month, the governor answered a handful of times that “it is not my bill… it is the legislature’s proposal.”

Speaking at a Tri-City chamber forum last week, Sununu pointed to laws in other states.

“Forty-three other states have similar clauses, including Massachusetts and New York, who have almost the exact same law. No one is screaming at them,” he said. “Do you want me to scrap a $13 billion budget for this one item? I will not do that.”

Still, he once again said that he’s “pro-choice” and that he’s “always supported a woman’s right to choose and never opposed late-term abortions.”

Democrats disagree on the similarities compared to other states. And if the governor runs for re-election or takes on Hassan – his predecessor in the Corner Office – in what would be one of the most high-profile and expensive U.S. Senate battles of 2022, targeting Sununu over abortion will be a key part of the Democrat’s playbook. It’s easy to imagine ads and commercials blasting Sununu over abortion flooding the TV and radio airwaves and on digital.

Would such attacks be successful?

Longtime New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Jim Merrill doesn’t think so.

“While there’s no question it’s an issue that will come up during any election campaign – whether it’s a future run for governor or for Senate, the provisions contained in the budget are actually reasonable, that I think a large majority of people in New Hampshire would support,” Merrill, a veteran of numerous presidential and statewide campaigns, argued.

“When you ask the question about whether someone’s pro-choice or pro-life, you get a certain answer. But when you talk about reasonable provisions like parental notice, like a ban on partial-birth abortion or a provision that prevents abortion in the last trimester of pregnancy, I think you’ll find broader public support for that,” Merrill said. “I think Gov. Sununu and Republicans have a reasonable position that’s defensible here that I think you’ll find a broad cross-section of New Hampshire voters would actually be comfortable with.”

Democrat Molly Kelly, who ran for governor and lost to Sununu in 2018, sees it differently. 

“Instead of trusting women, Sununu is choosing to insert the government into this deeply personal decision that should be left to women,” she wrote in an op-ed. “That’s wrong.”

Democrats spent the past two election cycles relentlessly tying Sununu to then-President Donald Trump, who according to public opinion polling was very unpopular in the state among Democrats and many independents. But the strategy was unsuccessful, as Sununu won reelection in 2018 by single digits and last November in a landslide.

The big question now is whether the third time will be the charm for Democrats if Sununu launches a 2022 campaign.

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