Washington Senate race a test of abortion issue for Democrats

Back when it seemed like a huge Republican wave was building, Washington Senator Patty Murray was among those faced with the prospect of being swept away.

At 71, Murray is a far cry from her bold 1992 campaign, when the self-proclaimed mum in tennis shoes took on “the boys in red ties and dark suits” in an annoyed victory.

Now it’s Republican Tiffany Smiley, 41 and mother of three, who has the fresh face and perk of being a Beltway maverick.

Smiley’s amazing fundraising and inspirational backstory as a triage nurse and campaigner for disabled veterans like her husband did Republicans hope Washington will elect its first GOP senator since Bill Clinton was in the White House.

Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley speaks into a microphone against a backdrop of American flags.

Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley speaks at a Republican Party event on primary day, August 2, in Issaquah, Washington.

(Ted S Warren/Associated Press)

That could still happen.

But the June Supreme Court decision that overturned constitutional abortion rights threw Murray an important lifeline as it has Democrats across the country and increases her chances of breaking the pull that incumbents typically face in midterm elections , if their party holds the White House.

“It woke up a dormant Democratic segment of the electorate that either wasn’t paying much attention or was getting into the ‘red wave’ and felt like they were being crushed,” said Stuart Elway, a nonpartisan pollster in Seattle. “It gave their campaign a boost.”

The GOP still appears to be taking control of the House, with Republicans only having to take five seats held by Democrats. But gains of the order of 35 seats or more, which once seemed entirely plausible, now seem out of reach.

Control of the 50-50 Senate appears to be a toss up, which is better than it looked for Democrats before the Supreme Court brought the abortion issue to the fore by returning regulation to the individual states. Since then, almost half have restricted or banned the procedure.

The Democrats are betting heavily on the issue.

The party has already spent more than an estimated $124 million on TV ads mentioning abortion this year, more than double what next-issue — character — and nearly 20 times more than Democrats did in the mid-term campaign spent on abortion-related advertising in 2018. according to the Associated Press.

Investment in abortion-related ads, according to the AP, was higher than the GOP’s total spending on spots related to business, crime and immigration, which the party would rather emphasize.

Murray, who is seeking her sixth term, is among those who have tried most aggressively to capitalize on the Supreme Court decision. Abortion has been legal in Washington state since voters approved a ballot measure in 1970 — more than two years before the Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalized abortion statewide.

“It would only take a single vote in Congress to criminalize abortion and punish women and doctors nationwide, even in Washington,” says a spokeswoman forcefully — and exaggeratedly — in one of Murray’s ads. (Passing a statewide ban would almost certainly require more than a single vote even if the Senate ended in a 50-50 tie, since it would take 60 votes to overcome an inevitable filibuster.)

“Don’t give them their chance,” the ad concludes. “Resist Tiffany Smiley before it’s too late.”

The spot is part of a larger effort to portray Smiley, who describes herself as “100% pro-life”, as extreme.

Murray also ran an ad filled with graphic images from Jan. 6 recounting her frightening experience in the Capitol the day pro-Trump insurgents attempted to overthrow President Biden’s victory. “Democracy,” Murray says solemnly, “is on the ballot.”

Like many blue-state Republicans, Smiley has carefully navigated his way through the busy season, trying to avoid the MAGA label without drawing the wrath of Trump loyalists. Since rising under Washington’s top-two system – she finished second to Murray – Smiley has done a little cosmetic surgery on her website and edited out a section that questioned the integrity of the 2020 vote.

But her most direct attempt to steer into the political center is a TV spot in which Smiley faces the camera and speaks out against a nationwide ban on abortion. (She has said she respects the will of Washington voters and the law they passed decades ago.)

Set in soothing earth tones while a guitar strums softly in the background, Smiley asks, “What is extreme? Thirty years in the Senate and nothing to show for it.

“Patty Murray wants to scare you,” she concludes. “I want to serve you.”

In another spot, Smiley follows up on her Democratic rival by merging the issues of crime and inflation.

“These doors are closed because it’s too dangerous to ask employees to stay here longer,” Smiley says as she stands in front of a shuttered and graffiti-strewn Starbucks in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. “You can’t even get a cup of coffee from the hometown store…even if you could still afford it.”

The August primary saw unusually high turnout from women and young voters, part of a pattern across the country since the Supreme Court made its abortion decision.

Cathy Allen, a Democratic strategist who teaches political science at the University of Washington in Seattle, was impressed by the attitude of students, who are not particularly enthusiastic about any major political party, nor by the hesitant way in which elected leaders approach problems how to address climate change.

The abortion decision angered and propelled her — “You have this sense of injustice,” Allen said — and got some otherwise discouraged or apathetic people to vote.

Whether that kind of passion persists, or whether inflation and recession fears override the abortion issue and drag Biden and other Democrats down, will determine not only whether Washington has a new senator, but which party the chamber will hold for the next two years controlled. Washington Senate race a test of abortion issue for Democrats

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