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Nevada Democrats keep abortion top of mind one year after Roe overturned

Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
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A crowd gathers during a reproductive health rights demonstration in front of the Lloyd D George Federal Courthouse in downtown Las Vegas on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent).

On the day the Supreme Court overturned nearly 50 years of precedent and decided Americans have no constitutional right to an abortion, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) was in Washington, D.C.

She spent the morning of June 24, 2022, texting with her mother and sister. She joined Senate Democrats in walking to the court and protesting the decision. And with just months to go until Election Day, she made abortion access a centerpiece of her 2022 re-election campaign. 

“It’s one of the reasons why I’m back here,” Cortez Masto said in a recent interview. “It’s just such an important issue to Nevadans.”

Nevada’s elected Democrats, state strategists and pro-abortion advocates say the Dobbs decision unleashed an enormous wave of political anger and activism, powering Democrats to victory in 2022 and becoming a pillar of the party’s 2024 playbook — even as access to abortion remained protected in Nevada law.

In the year since, all five of Nevada’s congressional Democrats have joined on to legislation codifying various reproductive rights and been active in promoting their stances on television and online. Meanwhile, Democrats in the Legislature advanced a ballot measure to codify the right to an abortion in the state’s constitution, and also advanced a bill protecting out-of-state abortion seekers and those providing reproductive care from prosecution in Nevada that was signed by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo.

To commemorate the anniversary of the Dobbs decision, Senate Democrats introduced four pieces of legislation to protect various reproductive rights, including the right to birth control, private digital health data and travel to other states to seek abortions. 

That latter proposal comes as states have passed policies focused on limiting out-of-state abortion access. Idaho passed a law criminalizing helping a minor travel to receive an abortion in another state, while state legislators in Missouri have proposed permitting private citizens to file lawsuits against others who aid a Missourian in traveling out of state for abortion care.

Cortez Masto sponsored the bill and asked for unanimous consent for it to pass, but Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) objected, equating Cortez Masto’s bill to promoting child trafficking — triggering the former attorney general. 

“My colleagues on the far-right only cloak themselves in the Constitution when it suits them,” Cortez Masto said in a fiery retort. “And right now, it really doesn’t suit them … when they really can’t argue the facts and law of something, they just make things up.”

And while the bills failed, the message was clear: Democrats will continue to make abortion a marquee election issue heading into 2024. 

It’s a message they believe is emotionally resonant enough to win elections.

“The big takeaway is that for 50 years, we've had the right to control our reproductive freedom,” Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) said in an interview. “And now my daughter has less rights than I do.”

A Nevada consensus

Nevada voters famously cemented the right to an abortion up to 24 weeks in a 1990 ballot referendum with nearly two-thirds support — ensuring that language could only be modified or changed by another vote of the people. Legislators this year took the first step toward advancing a state constitutional amendment codifying abortion rights, though the soonest it could make the ballot would be in 2026.

That pro-abortion majority has stood firm over the ensuing decades. Before Roe was overturned, 69 percent of Nevadans described themselves as “pro-choice,” per a 2021 OH Predictive Insights poll. Another poll published in April indicated that  62 percent of Nevadans — including a plurality of Republicans, at 41 percent — want the right to an abortion further protected as a part of the state constitution.

Democrats plan to use that consensus to their advantage.

"We will continue to remind Nevadans of Republicans’ extreme anti-choice agenda every day until next November,” Nevada Democratic Party spokesperson Johanna Warshaw said in a statement.

In a state with legal gambling and brothels, the permissive attitude toward abortion is perhaps unsurprising. Caroline Mello Roberson, the southwest regional director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said door-knocking gave her first-hand experience as to just how unique the issue is. 

She recalled going up to a house with a Ronald Reagan decal on the outside, nervously introducing herself and her cause, and then being met with an enthusiastic affirmation of a woman’s right to an abortion from the Republican man inside.

The Dobbs decision energized state abortion advocates, she said, making it “easier than ever before” to get people to call their representatives, testify at the state capitol and take on organizing work. In particular, she said young people — who the decision will most affect — and older people, who remember the pre-Roe world, have become most engaged.

“What [Dobbs] has done is made this front and center in people’s minds,” Roberson said. “They know that their ballot and their reproductive freedoms are intrinsically linked.” 

In the 2023 legislative session, the Legislature passed three reproductive rights-focused bills: SJR7, a proposed constitutional amendment enshrining the right to abortion in the state’s constitution; AB383, guaranteeing the right to prescribe and take contraception; and SB131, a state-level version of Cortez Masto’s bill protecting the right to travel to receive an abortion.

Lombardo — who said on the 2022 campaign trail that he would view any of his decision-making as a governor through a “pro-life lens” — signed the travel protections bill, but vetoed the bill guaranteeing access to contraception, saying it ““would unnecessarily restrict local officials’ autonomy”.

Lombardo reflects the conundrum state Republicans find themselves in, many of whom have skirted the issue since the Dobbs ruling.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), the state’s lone congressional Republican, released a statement after Roe was overturned calling himself “personally pro-life” but acknowledging the matter had been decided by Nevada voters. He has not put out another public statement on abortion since, and said in a recent interview he was uncomfortable when a federal judge invalidated the use of abortion drug mifepristone for all states, saying abortion questions should be decided at the state level.

Similarly, when Republican Jim Marchant announced his run for Senate, his kickoff event was light on talk of abortion, despite declaring himself as proudly anti-abortion in his prior run for secretary of state.

Roberson, who said NARAL began with 900 supporters in Nevada in 2016 and has grown to include 48,000 as abortion rights became imperiled across the country, said this legislative session was important for abortion access given that out-of-staters now make up half of patients in state abortion clinics — while also forcing Republicans like Lombardo to take stances.

“Republican candidates here have always had a problem with this,” Roberson said. “That’s why you see them hedging with this.”

Electoral effects

State Democrats agree abortion was vital to defending the state’s Senate seat and three competitive House seats up in 2022.

“It’s been a wakeup call for American women,” said Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV), who won re-election by a 4-point margin and attacked her opponent’s silence on abortion. “We’ve seen a mobilization across the country.”

Mallory Payne, spokesperson for the state party, said abortion immediately became a top issue for voters after the Dobbs decision, and that it changed the energy of races — making it easier to find volunteers and drive turnout.

Typically, the party of the president suffers significant congressional losses in midterm elections. In 2022 however, Democrats expanded on their Senate majority and only narrowly lost the House.

Tanner Hale, president of Young Democrats of Nevada, said abortion re-energized Democratic campaigns by bringing the midterms onto friendly turf for Democrats — health care. Rosen won in 2018 in a race dominated by talk of the Affordable Care Act; COVID was a top issue for Democrats in 2020. But when young voters, in particular, saw the Supreme Court take abortion rights away, Hale said it was much easier to turn voters out.

“We felt like we were on our heels,” Hale said. “And that ruling really kind of shifted the landscape back to a battleground, and I think the election showed that.”

For federal elections, Democrats focused on Republican proposals to pass a national abortion ban, such as a 15-week measure introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in September and highlighted past remarks of their opponents, particularly those of Cortez Masto opponent Adam Laxalt, who called Roe v. Wade a “joke” and had been involved in anti-abortion efforts as the state’s attorney general.

It’s an issue where Democrats are able to draw sharp distinctions.

“Even when I go to the floor of the Senate, I say [to Republicans], what is it about this issue that you do not trust women to make decisions on their own?” Cortez Masto said. “They can’t answer that. We see their answer: it is to ignore it.”

After the leaked draft decision and eventual Dobbs ruling, some abortion advocates and left-wing voters expressed frustration with Democrats for never using majorities in the Clinton and Obama eras to codify Roe, and for deprioritizing the issue while the right steadily built a strategy, hinging on the federal judiciary, strong enough to overturn precedent. 

The party has been split over whether or not to expand the Supreme Court to counteract the conservative majority responsible for Dobbs and other rulings; progressives have called for additional justices, while moderate Democrats like Cortez Masto have maintained that “nine is enough,” a stance she reaffirmed in an interview this week.

But in the year since Dobbs, strategists said they’ve been impressed with how the state’s elected Democrats have risen to the occasion.

Cortez Masto has been a “fantastic champion” for reproductive rights, Roberson said. But she admitted she had been frustrated earlier in Cortez Masto’s tenure over the length of time it took the senator (who has a penchant for being lawyerly) to speak out on abortion issues, including during the confirmation process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

But since Roe was overturned, Cortez Masto has been proactive in calling out future rights that could be revoked, including contraception, travel and — with her legal background — becoming a reliably outspoken voice on court extremism, in Dobbs and other cases such as an April one limiting the approval of abortion drug mifepristone, which was later overruled.

“Now, I see her proactively leading the charge,” Roberson said. “We’re really lucky that we have these two women senators that are such strong advocates for Nevadan values.”

Rosen, for her part, speaks about abortion from a place of emotional empathy, rattling off a list of fertility circumstances that women are now endangered when facing, from miscarriages to ectopic pregnancies. 

She’s made abortion a totem of her nascent campaign already, immediately going on offense against potential opponent Marchant by highlighting abortion rights in her response to his candidacy, saying he“opposes abortion rights even in cases of rape and incest” based on prior candidate questionnaires 

Sam Brown, another potential Rosen opponent, does not support abortion and said on his website, “it is in our American interest that we protect the lives of unborn babies just as we would protect the life of any other American.”

Payne said the presidential race will also draw further attention to the topic in Nevada.

“The entire GOP field is pushing for a national abortion ban,” she said. “It’s going to continue just being a really critical issue this cycle.”

In a press conference Wednesday, Rosen made the electoral implications clear, saying the only line of defense against a national abortion ban is the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Rosen and Nevada’s House Democrats will have the full thrust of the party behind them, as it plans to make abortion a rallying cry with the expectation that it will deliver both chambers to Democrats.

“This extremism on reproductive freedoms will cost Republicans the House majority,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We are going to ensure that we disqualify each and every Republican in these states for their stances on abortion.”

While the election may come down to how salient abortion remains in the next year, and how voters weigh it against other issues, Rosen said it speaks to how Nevada’s values align with her own. 

“Nevada’s a pro-choice state,” she said. “This is really, fundamentally about women’s health, and our reproductive health care. It’s not just abortion — it’s really health care.”


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