Sep 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' surprise surrogates

Illustration of a caduceus combined with a microphone at the top

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Democrats in close races are increasingly leaning on doctors to drive messaging on abortion, betting their credibility will appeal to bipartisan audiences and help center a polarizing political debate around health and safety.

Why it matters: Health care professionals aren't your typical political surrogates, but the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade reversal has changed the midterms playbook for both parties.

The latest: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a national 15-week abortion ban Tuesday in a bid to unite Republicans around a common position, weeks after arguing the issue should be left to the states.

  • The bill uses the non-medical phrase "late-term abortion" in its title and pledges to "protect pain-capable unborn children," in some instances citing contested medical assertions.
  • Democrats see doctors as trusted voices who can help in the political fight against abortion bans by convincing voters that GOP positions aren't medically sound.

What's happening: Some doctors enraged by the high court's Dobbs decision that reversed Roe say they felt compelled to appear in political ads this year for the first time.

  • Emily Hyatt — an emergency medicine doctor who lives in Kansas but works in Missouri — told Axios she recently volunteered to help Rep. Sharice Davids' (D-Kan.) campaign when it was seeking a doctor for an abortion ad.
  • With less than 24 hours' notice, Hyatt found a colleague to cover her ER shift so she could film. "I've always been a person who doesn't want to talk politics," she said. "But this is the hill I will die on."

The big picture: Kansas became ground zero for post-Roe politics after voters rejected an anti-abortion constitutional amendment that would've stripped protections from the state's constitution.

  • Now doctors and nurses are weighing into the abortion debate in contests across Georgia, Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Hawaii.
  • The dynamic is especially pronounced in governor's races, where abortion rights are on the line.

State of play: The Democratic nominees for governor in Hawaii, New Hampshire and Tennessee are all physicians who have made abortion a central pillar of their campaigns.

  • In Georgia, local doctors convened with the state Democratic Party last month "to speak on the dangers Gov. Brian Kemp’s extreme abortion ban poses" to the health care system and providers.
  • A group of doctors called out Pennsylvania's Republican nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, on the issue last month, with one physician flatly stating that the candidate's position on abortion "goes against established medicine."

Between the lines: Some Democratic campaigns have seized on abortion bans that would criminalize health care providers who continue to perform the procedure.

  • The Democratic Governors Association's latest ad against Michigan's Republican nominee Tudor Dixon attacks her for supporting the state’s 1931 abortion ban, emphasizing its penalties for doctors and nurses.
  • A group backed by DGA highlighted the same issue in an early general election ad against Wisconsin's GOP nominee Tim Michels, citing his support for an 1849 law that "jailed doctors" who performed abortions.

What they're saying: Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), the only pro-abortion rights woman doctor in Congress, told Axios she sees herself as a "secret weapon" for Democrats — particularly when some Republicans "are looking to paint Democrats as barbarians."

  • "I feel like I am holding the line here, and my voice is necessary because it carries a credibility when I can say that as a pediatrician, I have been in the room," she said.

The other side: There are over a dozen GOP doctors in Congress, but Republicans in competitive races are generally steering away from the abortion debate as polls suggest it could drive Democratic turnout.

  • Dr. Mehmet Oz, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, describes himself as "strongly pro-life" but opposes criminal penalties for patients and doctors who perform abortions.
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