Facing crucial races for governor and the US Senate, Democratic candidates in Wisconsin hope that their support for abortion rights in the face of a Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade can weather the headwinds of midterm elections that have long been expected in favor of Republicans. But there is one major group their strategies may fail to mobilize: black voters.
An issue with strong support from white Democrats is more complex in the black community, especially among churchgoers who have more conservative views on abortion. This topic is so risky that most community organizers avoid bringing it up.
“Out of the black Baptist church alone, that would split us in half,” David Lenners, executive director of WISDOM, a religious organizing group with a statewide presence, said when asked why his group didn’t regulate abortion. Karen Royster, a Milwaukee-based Souls to the Polls spokeswoman, called abortion a “taboo” in church circles, making it difficult for religious leaders to do any kind of work around it.
Angela Lange, executive director of BLOC, said other groups, such as organized communities of black leaders, “would not proactively raise this issue” while doing voter education, but would discuss it if they did.
It’s an issue that is bound to receive more focus after a crucial statewide vote in heavily Republican Kansas last week in favor of protecting access to abortion, bolstering Democrats’ hopes that the issue will galvanize voters elsewhere.
AP VoteCast shows that, in general, black voters in the 2020 presidential election were more likely than white or Hispanic voters to say that abortion should ordinarily be legal. But among those leaning or leaning toward the Democratic Party, things looked different: White Democrats were more likely than Black or Hispanic Democrats to say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, 88% to 77% to 76 %.
Valerie Langston, a 64-year-old black woman from Milwaukee, supports Democrats and supports abortion rights. She said she’s afraid to raise this issue with friends because she’s sometimes surprised to learn that some of them are anti-abortion.
“They would still vote Democrats even if they didn’t approve of abortion,” she said.
Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who won the election four years ago by just over one percentage point, said he is not worried about voter enthusiasm. He has indicated that he has vetoed nine bills from the Republican-controlled legislature that would have restricted access to abortion. At a press conference, he expressed confidence that the case would prompt him to be re-elected.
“I don’t think there would be any problem,” Evers said when asked if he thought voters with different views on abortion might not be motivated to support it.
Doctors in Wisconsin stopped offering abortions after a Supreme Court ruling over an 1849 ban that Republican lawmakers said they wanted to update. Anti-abortion groups said they would work to clarify the law to defend against challenges.
The state’s senator, La Tonya Johnson, a black Democrat who represents a majority-black area of Milwaukee, noted that many voters are focusing on economic concerns. She said she hasn’t seen groups go door-to-door to talk about abortion rights, even though black women are more likely than any other group to get an abortion, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Speaker Iris Reese said Wisconsin Democratic engagement teams that work directly with voters of color throughout the year prefer to have talks where voters lead them. “It’s not the only thing we talk about to voters, but we do talk about it,” she said when it comes to abortion.
Shakya Sherry-Donaldson, executive director of 1000 Women Strong, a national political organizing group focused on issues that matter to black women, prefers a more direct approach. The key is to focus on the idea that “we should have autonomy from the state,” she said — a message that resonates enough with a historically marginalized community to trump personal and religious views about the ethics of abortion.
“Our message framing is that we can’t go back, only forward. Civil rights have been won for all of us,” Sherry Donaldson said.
But her group is not in Wisconsin this year, and it is focusing its efforts in seven other states where they have been able to provide staff and fund their work.
Barrow Shah, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee whose work focuses on race, ethnicity and politics, said Democrats would do well to make sure they send messages about issues like crime and voting rights rather than focusing on a specific issue like abortion.
“There’s not a lot of voting on a single issue happening among Democrats in general, but particularly among black women who have been sort of the backbone of Democratic turnout for at least the last 10 years,” Shah said.
The Republican Party’s strategy and messaging for reaching black voters about abortion will be the same mid-term as it has been for decades.
“What we are going to do is explain the excessive — even unequal — access to paid abortions for African American women,” said Gerard Randall, chair of the Republican African-American Council in Wisconsin.
“They will certainly hear from the pulpits in many of their churches a similar message of restraint when it comes to accessing abortions,” he said.
However, Wisconsin Democrats see the issue as key to winning the governor’s race and the US Senate race this fall.
A poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that most people in the United States want Congress to pass legislation ensuring access to legal abortion nationwide and that an overwhelming majority also believe states should allow abortion in specific cases, including Women’s health. and rape.
The top Democratic candidate in the Wisconsin Senate race, Lt. Mandela Barnes, who is black, emphasizes abortion as a civil right. In his latest TV ad, Barnes, who grew up in Milwaukee, and his mother talked about her decision to end a complicated pregnancy. Lajuan Barnes highlights that she was able to choose: “It was my decision, not my decision some politicians.”
Harm Finhuyzen is a panellist for the Associated Press/Reporting for the America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report confidential issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.