Republican candidates in Colorado want to be talking about the economy, affordability, high crime rates and education as they head into a midterm election where they hope to make gains at the state and federal levels.
But they have had to confront one social issue that has been on many voters’ minds since the Supreme Court reversed the national right to an abortion in June: abortion.
Sen. Lindsey Graham’s introduction of a bill to ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks, coupled with Democratic efforts to keep the issue at the forefront, have forced candidates in tight races to try to stake out a more nuanced approach to abortion and reproductive rights, especially in a state where voters have so far rejected any limits on the procedure.
What the candidates in Colorado's 7th and 8th congressional districts are saying about abortion
GOP State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, who is running in the hotly contested eighth congressional district, received national attention when it came out last month that she had removed her stance on abortion from her campaign website. But Kirkmeyer insists her views on the issue haven’t changed.
“As you know, I’m pro-life,” said Kirkmeyer in an emailed response to CPR when asked about Graham’s bill.
She said she didn’t want to speculate on a first draft of a bill that, “even Democrats admit won’t pass the Senate. My opponent’s extreme position, supporting abortion right up to the moment of birth, is out of step with the overwhelming majority of American people who support common-sense limits on abortion. I look forward to the debate.”
But Kirkmeyer told CPR in a later interview that as a “pro-life” candidate she would vote for a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks.
“I can either save a few lives, a few babies or save no babies. I'm not an all or nothing on this one,” she said. “We start with saving a few lives, babies' lives, I'm going to do that. And I would support that."
Kirkmeyer is running against Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician who joined other Democratic lawmakers last legislative session to pass the Reproductive Health Equity Act (RHEA) that codified the right to an abortion into state law.
Colorado is one of the few states that does not limit when the procedure can be performed during pregnancy.
Colorado voters have struck down attempts to restrict abortion access multiple times, including two years ago when a ban on abortions after 22 weeks failed by roughly 20 points.
A recent NPR/Marist poll found abortion is top of mind with many voters, coming in only behind inflation as a top issue Democrats and Independents, in particular, are thinking about ahead of the election.
In Colorado’s 7th congressional district, a Democratic-leaning seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Republican Erik Aadland is running against Democratic state Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a strong backer of abortion rights and who also helped pass RHEA.
In talking about abortion, Aadland has framed it as a state’s rights issue. He supports the overturning of Roe and said he would vote against either a federal ban or any effort to make abortion legal nationwide.
“I will not support federal legislation with respect to this issue, with respect to abortion,” Aadland told CPR News. “That's because I must find a point of consistency with my constituency. This is where legislators have to put their personal views aside and recognize that they represent a broader collective in society. And this is one of those instances.”
Colorado’s sitting Republican members of Congress have taken a different approach. Representatives Doug Lamborn, Ken Buck and Lauren Boebert have all signed on as cosponsors to the House version of Graham’s bill.
Joe O'Dea's stance on abortion
In the U.S. Senate race, GOP nominee, Joe O’Dea, stands out from his party with his support for keeping abortion legal through the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, and in later stages in cases of rape, incest or the health of the mother.
O’Dea describes his position as a balanced, middle-of-the-road approach, and has released an ad with his daughter highlighting his position on abortion and pushing back on Democratic attacks.
While O’Dea voted for Colorado’s failed 22-week-abortion ban initiative, he has been critical of Graham’s bill and efforts to restrict the procedure nationally.
“A Republican ban is as reckless and tone deaf as is Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s hostility to considering any compromise on late term abortion, parental notification, or conscience protections for religious hospitals,” said O’Dea.
O’Dea’s position doesn’t just separate him from other Republican candidates; it’s also put him at odds with the leadership of the state party.
When a Denver Post reporter tweeted out O’Dea’s statement opposing the Graham bill, Colorado Republican Party chair Kristi Burton Brown shot back.“No. The majority of Americans support protecting the lives of children at 15 weeks. They are unique human beings who feel pain and deserve to have a chance at life - just like every one of us do. Children are always worth saving,” she tweeted.
Burton Brown got her start in politics as the author of the state’s first Personhood amendment and is the main face of the 2008 initiative. It would have defined human life at conception and given constitutional rights to embryos. That first initiative, and two subsequent measures, were rejected by voters by wide margins.
How Democrats are responding
Democrats say Graham’s bill, although it is far from the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate, is an example of what could happen if Republicans are in charge in Washington.
U.S Sen. Michael Bennet, who is up for reelection, co-sponsored the Freedom to Travel for Health Care Act, to clarify that it is illegal for states that have restricted or banned abortion to try to prevent their citizens from traveling for reproductive health care. He’s also called on the Biden administration to pursue “bold action” to protect the right to an abortion.
“For us, it's even more resolved for the work that we do in Colorado,” said Dusti Gurule, the president of COLOR, the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights.
“The Supreme Court said, essentially, it should go to the states, but now with this introduction of this bill, it's like, make up your mind,” Gurule said she does think further efforts to restrict abortion could energize voters on the left. “It's just frustrating and it's also mobilizing.”
CPR's Caitlyn Kim contributed to this report.
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