Ballot Initiative Reveals Division Over How Colorado Democrats Talk About Abortion

Anti-choice activists in Colorado are pushing to ban later abortion care through a 2020 ballot initiative as Democrats try to unseat one of the U.S. Senate's most vulnerable Republicans.

[Photo: Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at an event.]
“I have always been a firm believer that those decisions should be between a woman and her doctor,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and a leading candidate to take on Gardner in 2020, told Caplis, a well-known conservative. Joe Skipper / Getty Images)

The top two Democrats vying to take on U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in next year’s election have offered varying responses to questions about their support for later abortion care, which Colorado anti-choice activists are trying to ban.

Dan Caplis, the host of a right-wing radio show in Colorado, has asked both candidates if there should be limits on how late in pregnancy an abortion could be performed.

It’s a relevant question. Anti-choice activists are collecting signatures for a 2020 ballot measure that would ban abortion in Colorado after the fetus reaches a probable gestational age of weeks. Colorado is one of seven states that allows abortion throughout pregnancy, based on the medical needs of the patient and the judgment of a doctor.

“I have always been a firm believer that those decisions should be between a woman and her doctor,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and a leading candidate to take on Gardner in 2020, told Caplis, a well-known conservative, over the summer.

About a month later, Caplis put essentially the same question to Hickenlooper’s top Democratic primary opponent, Andrew Romanoff, a former state house speaker.

“Should the law allow abortion on demand for all nine months without any restrictions?” Caplis asked Romanoff.

“Yes,” Romanoff replied on air, drawing plaudits from Caplis, who had accused Hickenlooper of not answering the question directly.

Asked this month by Rewire.News about his response to Caplis, Romanoff said he simply told the truth.

“When you run around the state, I want to make sure I’m saying the same thing to folks in Greeley and Grand Junction as I say to people in Denver and Boulder, not just because it’s easier to remember,” Romanoff said. “In an era of social media, if you start saying different things to different people, it will catch up to you. So there’s both a practical and moral reason.”

Asked why Hickenlooper answered the question the way he did, emphasizing a woman’s choice, Hickenlooper’s campaign sent Rewire.News a quote from the candidate at a campaign event stating, “Alright, so first, let’s just say that I support a woman’s right of choice, no matter what.”

Regardless of how they articulate their stance on the later abortion care ban initiative, both Hickenlooper and Romanoff say they are opposed to it. In fact, they’re widely seen as staunch supporters of abortion rights.

The language the two Democrats used to express their opposition to the abortion ban doesn’t seem to matter to abortion rights leaders, who prefer to direct their attention at Gardner. Gardner has joined fellow congressional Republicans in stigmatizing later abortion care, has backed fetal “personhood” legislation that would outlaw abortion and many kinds of contraception, and pushed for abstinence-only sex education.

He has voted in line with President Trump 89.1 percent of the time since the president took office, according to FiveThirtyEight. Gardner is widely considered one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbent senators; Trump lost Colorado by around 5 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election. Another recent statewide race—the 2018 gubernatorial contest—went to the Democrats by around 11 points

“The proponents of this [22-week-ban] measure know that being honest about their goals would lead to swift defeat, so this is why they have chosen language that attempts to reinforce the idea that there are good and bad abortions,” said Dusti Gurule, who directs the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR) Action Fund. “This is a strategic act on their part to try and slowly shift voters into believing that limits should be placed on abortion care, rather than simply trusting the people who need access to medical care.”

For Gurule, what matters most is the “urgency” to expand health-care access across Colorado, something Gardner has a record of opposing, making him “wrong for our state,” she said.

She’d like to see Democrats talk more about expanding health-care access.

“As a reminder, reproductive justice is a framework that lives at the intersections of our communities’ lives,” Gurule said. “If people don’t have access to basic health care, then they definitely won’t have access to the full range of reproductive health care or the ability to raise their families in a safe environment.”

Still, could the words used by Democrats to describe the proposed later abortion ban affect their electability?

“In terms of the primary, where more engaged voters turn out, one could argue that Romanoff is appealing to more progressive and active voters by taking the more aggressive stance than Hickenlooper,” said Joshua C. Wilson, associate professor of political science at the University of Denver, who specializes in “abortion politics,” among other areas.

“Since neither candidate is running counter to the general Democratic support for abortion rights, only the most invested voters will likely discern a difference in their responses,” he added. 

In the general election, Wilson says, you can argue, based on surveys, that “Hickenlooper’s response is safer than Romanoff’s,” but historical polling shows that “while abortion matters in some sense, it does not decide elections.”

Hickenlooper has frequently talked about his efforts, as governor, in advocating for a successful family-planning program, opposed by Republicans at the time, that provides IUDs and other long-acting reversible (LARC) contraception to young and low-income people. His gubernatorial administration prioritized the program and fought for it, but it was launched before he entered office. Hickenlooper supports repealing the discriminatory Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used for abortion.

Romanoff supports Colorado’s family planning program and also wants to repeal the Hyde Amendment. He’s promised, if elected, to “not consent to judges or justices who refuse to uphold the right to choose.” Romanoff is opposed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, which allowed some corporations to use a religious exemption to skirt federal requirements to provide health insurance plans with free contraception.

Wilson doesn’t think the presence of the later abortion ban on next year’s ballot would motivate many more anti-choice voters to cast ballots than they otherwise would, because “they already have a strong reason to turn in their ballots.”

“When you look at polling data on Trump’s most stable supporters—white evangelicals—they are also the most invested anti-abortion voters,” Wilson said, pointing to polling data. “Given that, they already have a strong reason to show up to vote.”

It’s possible the initiative could motivate more Democrats to vote, in light of recent polls showing increased Democratic concern about abortion rights, Wilson said. But “while abortion matters far more now for Democratic voters than in the past, it is still just one of many issues that will matter, and likely one that is still sitting behind a list of others.”

Proponents of the later abortion ban have until March 4 to collect 124,632 signatures to place the measure on the 2020 ballot. The effort has galvanized anti-choice activists statewide.

But some, including activists from Colorado Right to Life, oppose the initiative, arguing that it legitimizes abortion by allowing it prior to 22 weeks into pregnancy.