At a recent event with supporters in Soldotna, former Gov. Sarah Palin told the crowd that she is “100% pro-life.” Her view — that abortions should be banned, including when the pregnancy is the result of rape — goes against that of a majority of Alaskans, according to public opinion polling. And in the final days of campaigns, pro-abortion access candidates for Alaska’s U.S. House and Senate seats are banking on the 60% of the electorate who agree with them — according to multiple polls — to carry them to victory.
Rep. Mary Peltola, the Democrat who won the special U.S. House election, has made her position on abortion one of the key tenets of her campaign. Her campaign shirts feature the slogan: “pro-fish, pro family, pro-jobs, pro-choice.” Peltola is running against Palin, Republican Nick Begich and Libertarian Chris Bye in the Nov. 8 election.
Peltola is the only candidate in that race who supports enshrining access to abortion in federal law after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that protected abortion access nationwide. Access to the procedure remains protected under the Alaska constitution.
“In Alaska, the right to choose is constitutionally protected. That’s amazing, but unfortunately a protection millions nationwide don’t have. It’s our responsibility to fight for them, prevent a national ban, and codify protections for reproductive healthcare for all,” Peltola wrote on social media Tuesday.
It’s a position that has garnered Peltola an endorsement from Planned Parenthood and galvanized support in a year when abortion has risen to the top of issues on voters’ minds ahead of the elections in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, according to national and Alaska-specific polling.
Nationwide, Republicans have tried to downplay their positions on abortion as the election has drawn near. Begich is part of the trend. His campaign website makes no mention of his position on abortion, but he has told conservative talk radio hosts that he opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest. A recent message to his campaign manager seeking to clarify his positions on abortion access went unanswered.
Palin has gone a step further. Asked last week in Soldotna if she would support abortion in the case of a risk to the life of the pregnant person, she said, “The rarest of rare situations where literally a mom is dying, the baby is dying — no, I would choose life and I would choose any kind of legislation that prohibited abortion. I would.”
Asked specifically if she would support abortion in the case of “a 10-year-old girl that starts her period and is raped,” Palin responded, “it’s so tough, but I keep it simple and I say, no, I can’t support, I can’t. If I were a government official, if I were somebody voting on it, I would never vote for allowing of abortion on that because if people don’t like my position they can take it up with God because I’m trying to follow His word.”
In other statewide races in Alaska this year — including the campaigns for U.S. Senate race and governor — abortion has been equally prominent in the array of topics discussed by candidates. In the Senate race, Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski has touted her record as one of the only Republicans in Congress willing to protect access to the procedure, even as she faces attacks for her stance from both the left and right. In the governor’s race, Democratic former state lawmaker Les Gara has insisted he is the “only pro-choice candidate” in the race even as independent former Gov. Bill Walker has said he would work to protect access.
The messaging on the abortion access, which has come in the form of campaign ads and mailers, soliloquizing social media posts, endorsements and exchanges at candidate forums — all comes in the shadow of both national and statewide debates. In Alaska, a question on a constitutional convention that also appears on the November ballot could threaten the future of the state’s protections for the procedure; in Congress, President Joe Biden has vowed to push for federal law protecting access to the procedure even as Republican members of Congress have called for nationwide limits.
In Soldotna, Palin said “there are more pro-lifers in Alaska than not” — a fact contradicted by several polls over the years that have all indicated that around 60% of Alaskans support preserving access to the procedure. Most recently, Alaska pollster Ivan Moore of Alaska Survey Research conducted a survey in July that found that 33% of respondents thought abortion should be legal in all cases and 29% of respondents thought is should be legal most of the time. The poll found 26% thought it should be illegal most of the time, 7% thought it should be illegal all of the time and 5% had no opinion. The numbers are in line with similar polls conducted in 2017 and 2019.
A September poll commissioned by AARP found that among Alaskans 50 or older, abortion ranked as one of the top issues determining their votes in both congressional and state races. Asked what issue is “personally most important” in determining U.S. Senate race votes, 14% of respondents said they cared most about abortion, the same number as those who cared most about taxes, government spending and debt. No issue ranked higher. The issue ranked highest among highest among Democratic voters, but was also seen as important by independent and so-called “persuadable” voters.
Rose O’Hara-Jolley, Alaska state director for Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, called abortion access “the single most important issue,” as “evidenced by the fact that almost every candidate is talking about it one way or the other.”
But while a majority of Alaskans support abortion access, some right-wing candidates like Palin have made no secret of their anti-abortion stance.
Palin has long been a hardliner on abortion. In 2008, in the national spotlight as the Republican vice presidential candidate, she said her position was that abortion should be allowed only “if the life of the mother is endangered.” Even then, her position was more extreme than that of her running mate at the top of the ticket, John McCain.
O’Hara-Jolley says that anti-abortion candidates have historically used the issue to drum up their base and used it to their advantage amid low voter turnout that doesn’t reflect public opinion.
Low voter turnout means “you’re just having a small portion of the population who often aren’t represented making the decisions for everyone,” she said.
The U.S. Supreme Court galvanized pro-abortion access voters nationwide and has been credited for leading to victories for candidates that support the procedure. In Alaska, hundreds took to the streets after the decision came out to call for protecting the procedure. It’s now been more than four months since the decision came out. O’Hara-Jolley says that energy is not going anywhere.
“It’s not an issue that is going to wax and wane like others. If you lose the right to access your health care, then that significantly changes and alters the outcomes of your life,” O’Hara-Jolley said.
Republicans are banking on voters prioritizing concerns like the recession and resource development — topics that Begich and Palin have spoken about repeatedly throughout their campaigns — when they head to the polls. Yet even Palin, at her Soldotna event, in answering the questions posed to her on abortion, appeared to recognize that abortion access is on many voters’ minds.
‘Pro-choice with restrictions’
But not all Republicans oppose abortion access. Murkowski, the moderate Republican senator in a high-profile race against right-wing opponent Kelly Tshibaka, has long been willing to buck her party line in supporting abortion access, though her position is laced with caveats.
At a recent televised debate, Murkowski reiterated her support for codifying abortion access in federal law as it had been guaranteed by the Supreme Court since 1973, meaning until around 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“I also recognize that abortion should not be without limitation,” Murkowski said at a debate last week. That is why, she said, she voted against a Democrat-backed bill earlier this year that would have enshrined abortion access in federal law without limitations Murkowski has called for, including an option for medical professionals to deny abortion care based on their religious views, and continued prohibition on using federal Medicaid funds to cover abortions except when the woman’s life is in danger.
While Planned Parenthood has endorsed Peltola in the U.S. House race, they have not made an endorsement in the U.S. Senate race. A spokesperson for Murkowski’s campaign said she didn’t seek their endorsement.
Tshibaka has said she opposes abortion access and is on record saying she would like to ban the delivery of abortion-inducing pills and emergency contraception pills by mail. At the debate, she said she would support a bill introduced last month by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham that would ban all abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Democratic candidate Pat Chesbro has said she supports abortion access and that the decision should be left up the individual seeking abortion. Chesbro was not endorsed by Planned Parenthood, either.
“I was surprised, actually, that they didn’t even talk to me,” said Chesbro, who has criticized Murkowski for being “pro-choice with restrictions” and for supporting the confirmation of several of the Supreme Court justices who ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade in June.
Tshibaka said at the debate she would support “constitutionalist nominees,” a term used by right-wing politicians to refer to judges who adhere to an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. After the Supreme Court decided in June to overturn abortion protection, Former President Donald Trump, who nominated three of the justices in the six-justice majority opinion, credited the decision to the “strong constitutionalists” he nominated to the court.
Even as Tshibaka has taken a position on abortion out of step with that of most Alaskans, she has tried to use the topic to peel support from Murkowski, accusing her of having “flip-flipped” on the issue during her time in the Senate.
‘The only pro-choice candidate’
In the campaign for governor, Gara and Bill Walker have both said they will defend the provision in the state constitution that currently protects abortion access.
Walker, who has previously said he is personally “pro-life,” now says he will put his personal views aside. But that wasn’t enough for Planned Parenthood, which endorsed only Gara. O’Hara-Jolley said that’s because of Walker’s past actions, citing his decision to let a bill become law during his term as governor restricting sex education in Alaska. Walker did not sign the bill, but did not veto it, either.
Pointing to Walker’s record, Gara has labeled himself as “the only pro-choice candidate” in the governor’s race.
The two are facing Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has said he opposes abortion in all cases and has said he intends to introduce a measure that would allow voters to decide whether abortion should be protected under Alaska’s constitution. Dunleavy was a key supporter at the time of the provision tightening restrictions on sex education.
A recent joint ad released by the running mates of Gara and Walker focuses on abortion access, calling on voters to rank both tickets in an effort to unseat Dunleavy.
While Walker has said he is personally opposed to abortion, the topic has become a key element of his campaign with running mate Heidi Drygas, underscoring its importance for courting middle-of-the-road, nonpartisan and undecided voters.
In an August event hosted by Anchorage Democratic state Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, she invited people who identify as “pro-choice” to hear directly from Walker on the issue. Spohnholz and others said what they had heard from Walker had persuaded them to support him over his Democratic opponent.
In the governor’s race, the distinction between gubernatorial candidates has intensified as some congressional candidates now say abortion access is an issue that will be determined at the state rather than the federal level.
“Now it’s a state issue, and that’s a reason that a lot of people are opposing the constitutional convention, because they fear that somebody’s going to start talking about abortion,” Palin said in Soldotna. “I think that that’s a driver of this year.”