Abortion Is on the Ballot in Arizona. Only One Party Wants to Talk About It.

“Now that something is being taken away, it was like, oh my gosh.”

Arizona Republicans Blake Masters, Nancy Barto, and Kari Lake have expressed support for a complete ban on abortions in the state.Mother Jones illustration; Gage Skidmore/Zuma and Christopher Brown/Zuma (2)

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When a draft of the Supreme Court ruling that would strike down the federal right to abortion leaked earlier this year, Christine Marsh, a Democratic state senator who is running for re-election in one of Arizona’s most competitive districts, noticed a shift in the conversations she was having with voters.

“It changed everything at the doors almost immediately,” she told me, when we met at her Scottsdale campaign office in October. “And that was happening at a time when we were knocking mostly independents, Republicans, and some Dems that don’t tend to vote all that often—so this wasn’t like our base.”

Arizona might be the ultimate 2022 battleground, and Marsh’s 4th legislative district is the ultimate battleground seat—a stretch of suburban Maricopa County where a plurality of voters are registered independents. The races for governor, US Senate, and secretary of state have all grabbed national attention, but the battle for the legislature—where Republicans currently hold one-vote majorities in both chambers—could have major consequences both inside and outside the state. The future of public education, LGBTQ rights, reproductive health care, and fair elections might hinge on how Democrats perform in just five closely contested districts. 

Marsh, a former Arizona Teacher of the Year who still teaches middle-schoolers every morning, finds herself in a familiar position. She ran for office in 2018 at the crest of the “Red for Ed” movement, a teacher-led backlash against the state’s chronic disinvestment in public education—but lost by 267 votes. Two years later, she ran again and won by 497 votes. Now she’s been redistricted into the same turf as Sen. Nancy Barto, an arch-conservative who signed a letter asking Congress to reject Arizona’s election results and accept a fake slate of Trump electors. Barto also wrote the state law that bans abortion after 15 weeks with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. Because the race pits two incumbents against each other, LD-4 represents the fulcrum on which the battle for the statehouse—and perhaps the state—rests. 

In Arizona, where the district maps are the same for both the state house and the senate, voters choose up to two representatives and one senator. Democrats, though, only nominated one house candidate in LD-4—Laura Terech, a teacher and former president of the Phoenix chapter of the National Organization for Women. Marsh and Terech share a headquarters and are running as a slate. Calvin Philips, who manages the district for the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me the decision to run just one house candidate was a tactical one, “in order to really give people the chance, in districts like this where people do split their tickets, to do exactly that.” (In communications to Democrats, however, the campaign asks voters to vote for just one house candidate—Terech.)

On a weekday evening, the LD-4 office was buzzing with the sounds of dial tones and high schoolers reading from phone-banking scripts. After every successful call, one of them would ring a bell. There was a glimpse, too, of the significance the legislature holds beyond the state’s borders. The States Project, a super-PAC aimed at growing Democratic power in state capitols, has raised money for both candidates through its Give Smart project. On a folding table in the office’s small hallway, someone had written a reminder to write thank-you notes to out-of-state donors who have contributed to Terech’s campaign.

At the doors, Marsh talks about the education funding issues that got her into politics, water management, and the fentanyl epidemic. After her youngest son, Landon, died of an overdose in 2020, she wrote a law legalizing fentanyl testing strips, which had been classified as drug paraphernalia. But abortion is central to her message. Drive around the district and you’ll see sign after sign saying “Barto Bans Abortion.” Marsh’s 30-second TV ad includes a loop of a local news reporter describing Barto as “the face of the abortion laws in Arizona.”

Barto’s abortion bill, which was nearly identical to the Mississippi legislation that was upheld in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, was signed into law in April and prohibits abortion after 15 weeks—with no exceptions for rape or incest, or if the fetus is nonviable. With Roe v. Wade off the books, the state courts are also considering whether to uphold a 1864 territorial law banning all abortions, except to save a mother’s life. Barto has said that the ancient law should be enforced. Should Democrats take the legislature and the governor’s mansion, Marsh says, codifying Roe at the state level “would be one the of the first things that would happen.”

Marsh recalled speaking with an oncologist who, after Dobbs, was “just losing her mind over the effect this was going to have on her chemo patients, because chemo’s incompatible with life.” But Marsh wasn’t just hearing about it from women—suddenly men wanted to talk about abortion, too. 

“I don’t know—I’m speculating—that they’re thinking about their wives and their daughters or they’re thinking of something having been taken away,” she said. “Maybe [they] hadn’t really given much thought to abortion in their entire lives, maybe it’s been only 90 seconds in their whole lives and it’s never really landed on their doorstep, but now that something is being taken away, it was like, oh my gosh.”

Marsh is hardly alone; it’s the same story up and down the ticket. Katie Hobbs, the Democratic nominee for governor, has made abortion central to her race against Republican Kari Lake, who supports banning abortion with no exception for victims of rape or incest. 

About 15 minutes down the road in Mesa, Eva Burch, a nurse practitioner who is running for the state senate seat in LD-9, makes her work in reproductive health the centerpiece of her campaign against a Trump-endorsed Republican. At a recent reproductive rights rally, she shared the story of her own abortion. In a TV ad, she says she is running to get “extreme politicians out of the exam room, and out of our health care decisions.”

“I think [for] a lot of the independent voters, it’s become their deciding issue,” Burch told me.

The fight for LD-9, where Democrats are also fielding two house candidates—Lorena Austin and Seth Blattman—represents a referendum, not just on reproductive rights, but on a rightward lurch that predates Trump. In 2011, heavily Mexican-American precincts in Mesa formed the backbone of the successful effort to recall state senate president Russell Pearce, the author of the state’s anti-immigrant show-me-your-papers law, SB 1070. Kathy Pearce, Russell’s sister, is a state house candidate on the Republican slate for the district.

Another LD-9 house candidate is Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son was killed in a car crash with an undocumented driver. Mendoza was scheduled to appear as one of the “Angel Moms” at the 2020 Republican National Convention but was disinvited after promoting an anti-Semitic QAnon Twitter thread. In October, a Twitter user posted a 2011 photo of Mendoza, in blackface dressed as Aunt Jemima—and a 2012 photo of Mendoza in brownface, dressed as a Native American.

“Whatever makeup she wore is no worse than a drag queen’s,” one supporter told Phoenix’s ABC affiliate.

But that wasn’t quite right: Drag queens are a much bigger deal among Republican voters this year than blackface.

As candidates like Marsh and Burch target fence-sitters and lower-frequency voters, they’ve made abortion central to their pitch. If you listen to Republicans, though, you might think the end of Roe never happened.

Lake—who explicitly endorsed the “great” 1864 law during her primary, begged legislatures to pass a “carbon copy” of the Texas law that empowered citizens to collect bounties on people seeking reproductive care, and called abortion “the ultimate sin”—recently mused during a radio interview that “it would be really wonderful if abortion was rare and legal” and “rare but safe,” but that Democrats like Hobbs wanted to take things too far. (Her campaign subsequently walked the statement back.)

After the August primary, Blake Masters, the Republican nominee for US Senate, scrubbed his campaign page of his stated support for “a federal personhood law (ideally a Constitutional amendment) that recognizes that unborn babies are human beings that may not be killed.” He recently released an ad in which he claimed that unlike Sen. Mark Kelly, he supported “common-sense” regulations of abortion—a procedure he labeled, in an earlier ad, “genocide.”

These GOP candidates are not trying to win on the issue so much as they are trying to muddy the waters so that Democrats don’t. But mostly, Republicans don’t talk about it at all. Abortion, the ultimate litmus test for the GOP, has been surpassed in general-election messaging by crime, critical race theory, “rainbow fentanyl,” drag queens, and perhaps above all, what Lake refers to as “the transgenderism stuff.”

One evening last week, Lake dropped by a church in Scottsdale for what was billed as the latest stop on her “Ask Me Anything Tour,” a well-choreographed roadshow designed to highlight her platform (and political stardom) in a format akin to a daytime television show. But the event had another purpose: to boost Barto and the Republican house candidates in LD-4, Matt Gress and Maria Syms.

“I just want to say it’s no accident we’re having this Kari Lake event here in this district,” Barto said in her remarks. “Arizona is the target state. District 4 is the target district in the state.” 

At an event in which moving people off the fence—and offering tips on how to move others off the fence—was ostensibly the point, abortion was only referenced once, obliquely, when Syms brought up Laura Terech’s involvement with NOW. 

“That’s just another arm for Planned Parenthood, for woke education in our schools, for transgender, I should say, mutilation of our children,” she said.

Even Planned Parenthood, the villain of the anti-abortion movement for years, doesn’t always mean what it used to. As Semafor’s David Weigel noted recently, conservatives in Arizona have taken to attacking the organization for a wholly different reason—because Planned Parenthood of Arizona’s endorsement process stipulated that candidates could not accept money from police unions. In an ad attacking Marsh, the Arizona Republican Legislative Victory Fund says she was “endorsed by [a] group that wants to defund the police.” That group is NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In three days following Lake on the campaign trail, I never once heard the gubernatorial nominee who supports the territorial abortion ban actually talk about that abortion ban. But she spoke at length in Scottsdale about transgender girls competing in high school girls sports, and also about the very existence of transgender youth, which she compared to an impressionable belief in Santa Claus. 

“The imaginations they have—to take that and twist it into something and talk our boys into being girls and vice versa, it’s bad news and we all know it,” she said.

None of the Republican state legislative candidates’ literature at the event mentioned abortion. Nor did Lake’s. Nor did the state GOP’s door-hanger voter guide. (Barto did promote the website she’d put up, DrainTheMarsh.org, which calls Marsh “extreme” for opposing the 15-week abortion law but does not mention the absolute ban that Barto says should be the actual law.) Barto, Syms told the church crowd, “pushes back against the woke left trying to have transgender in our schools.” Marsh, Barto added, “voted to not protect kids from gender surgeries this session” and “voted ‘no’ to protecting our kids from having men and boys play against girls in sports.”

This is what Republican candidates want to talk about in 2022, and it’s what conservative audiences want to hear. The bet is that it’s what the independent voters of Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, and Phoenix want to hear, too—not a plea for moderation from a lifelong teacher, but a promise to save the children from their teachers.

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

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