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Missouri voters may not like state abortion ban — but they won’t punish those who support it

Althea Johnson, 65, of Jennings, stretches her arms out while participating in a demonstration supporting abortion rights on Monday, July 4, 2022, at Kiener Plaza in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Althea Johnson of Jennings participates in a demonstration supporting abortion rights in downtown St. Louis in July.

Shortly after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, abortion became illegal in Missouri except for medical emergencies. And this new reality presented difficult questions for people who support broader access to the procedure.

For instance: Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, the vice president of strategy and communications for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said the ruling sets the stage for a long and difficult battle to reinstate those rights.

“I think it’s really important for all of our supporters and activists and those who have fought alongside us to know that the fight is just beginning — and this is going to be a marathon to rebuild access,” Lee-Gilmore said shortly after the decision became public. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in a year or two. It’s going to be years of work.”

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, the last Missouri clinic which offers abortion care, on Thursday, June 23, 2022, in the Central West End.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri was the last Missouri clinic to offer abortion care before Roe was overturned.

Recent data may provide some credence to Lee-Gilmore’s sentiment.

According to a poll commissioned for St. Louis University and YouGov, 75% of respondents want exceptions for people who become pregnant due to rape or incest. And 48% would vote for a hypothetical ballot initiative repealing the new law.

On its face, that should be encouraging to people who want to elect more Democrats to federal office — where Congress could pass a law guaranteeing the right an abortion in all states. But the same poll seems to indicate that while Missouri voters don’t like the new law, they’re not willing to take it out on candidates who support it.

The poll found that Republican U.S. Senate nominee Eric Schmitt is leading Democratic nominee Trudy Busch Valentine by 11 percentage points. Schmitt signed paperwork minutes after Roe was overturned to enact the abortion ban — while Busch Valentine has made advocacy for legal abortion a central aspect of her campaign. Another poll, from Remington and MoScout,also showed Schmitt winning by more than 10 percentage points.

"These polls confirm that Missourians are ready for a Senator who will be laser-focused on stopping reckless spending, curbing energy costs, and defending our individual freedoms," Schmitt said in a statement.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt waves to the crowd alongside his daughter Sophia, wife Jaime, and youngest daughter Olivia, on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, after winning the GOP nomination for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat at the Westport Sheraton in Maryland Heights.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt waves to the crowd alongside his daughter Sophia; wife, Jaime; and daughter Olivia on Aug. 2 after winning the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.

Walking contradictions

Steven Rogers, an assistant professor of political science at St. Louis University and the director of the SLU/YouGov poll, said the results of this particular poll show that Missouri voters don’t just consider one issue when making a decision on the candidates.

“It’s important to consider abortion isn’t necessarily the only issue right now,” Rogers said. “It can be weighing on people’s decisions a little bit. But there can be other issues like the economy.”

Rogers said that most Missouri elections tend to conform to broader national trends. He pointed to research that he’s done showing that presidential approval ratings are three times as impactful on state legislative races as state legislative approval.

“Voters largely vote in state legislative elections based on their partisanship, and then the national political conditions,” Rogers said.

Many outside political observers note that Missourians tend to vote for ballot items that reflect support for progressive ideas, like expanding Medicaid or raising the minimum wage, and then vote for Republican candidates who oppose those proposals. Some of that has to do with how opposition to these initiatives is anemically funded or organized. But with rare exceptions, support for those efforts hasn’t really helped Democrats running for state and federal offices.

Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp is furious about the state’s abortion ban and thinks it will hurt Republicans in places like the 2nd Congressional District in the St. Louis area. But she also says there may be more pressing issues to voters.

“Increased costs are problematic for a lot of people,” said Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, earlier this summer. “You know when your grocery bill is increased, when you know when it costs much more money to put gas in your car.”

Trudy Busch Valentine, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, celebrates with supporters on Tuesday August 2, 2022, after winning Missouri's Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate at the Sheet Metal Workers SMART Local Union No. 36.
Theo Welling
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Trudy Busch Valentine celebrates with supporters on Aug. 2 after winning Missouri's Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

Alex Witt, campaign manager for Busch Valentine, said that not only is the state’s abortion law “cruel and appalling, but setting women back 50 years is going to be a losing issue” for Schmitt.

“As a nurse, Trudy Busch Valentine believes women should have the freedom to make their own private health care decisions without government mandates. In the Senate, she will work to codify Roe into law and support efforts to end the filibuster to get it done,” Witt said. “Missouri women don't want Eric Schmitt in the doctor's office with them, and we fully expect that in November they'll make it clear they don't want him in the Senate either.”

Schmitt’s campaign did not respond to a query about how the abortion issue would affect his campaign.

Republican optimism — and trepidation

For the most part, Missouri Republicans don’t seem worried that the abortion issue will affect their chances in November.

GOP state Rep. Travis Fitzwater isn’t sure that backlash over the abortion law will meaningfully chip away at his party’s dominance in the legislature. Fitzwater won a GOP primary for a state Senate seat and is not facing opposition from Democrats in November.

“I talked to a consultant yesterday who believes that it could raise turnout for Democrats a little bit in the fall,” said Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, earlier this month. “I don’t know if it’s going to be enough to change many of these races.” He points out a lot of the state Senate races are not competitive.

And there’s little evidence that the polling is prompting Republicans to play down their opposition to abortion rights.

Ben Brown, a Chesterfield Republican who is running for State Senate to replace Sen. Dave Schatz (R-Sullivan), speaks to voters on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, during a campaign stop the day before Missouri’s primary election in Washington, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Chesterfield Republican Ben Brown is running for state Senate to succeed Sen. Dave Schatz.

Take for example Ben Brown. He’s the GOP nominee for the 26th Senate District, which takes in counties around the St. Louis area. He says some people he talks with in the GOP-leaning district aren’t thrilled with the new law — but others are. And he added that while he’ll listen to other people’s perspectives, he is supportive of the status quo.

“I’m always willing to have a conversation,” Brown said. “But what I believe in my heart is right is where the law is right now — it’s going to be banned except in the case of medical emergencies.”

Others like GOP state Sen. Lincoln Hough of Springfield noted that Republicans shouldn’t dismiss the impact of Roe’s downfall. He pointed to how Kansas voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have said there’s no right to an abortion in the state.

“This is one of those issues that’s very real to people and near and dear to their hearts,” Hough said. “I think it is hard to handicap how that will actually affect, one, voter turnout and, two, then how those folks vote when they do show up.”

Rogers said one thing to look for in November — besides the impact on the U.S. Senate race and congressional contests — is how Democrats fare in closely divided state legislative districts.

“Abortion could have an impact on some of these state races,” Rogers said, adding that it would take a lot to move districts that are solidly Republican.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.