Roe vs. Trump in the Michigan Midterms

It was a sleepy afternoon in the Michigan storefront that houses the campaign operation of Hillary Scholten, a Democratic candidate for Congress. Flyers stacked on folding tables, yard signs ready for the occasional visitor. The vibe was distinctly late August, a time when many campaigns are quietly getting their voter lists in order and hoarding energy for the intense weeks to come. But, in a political year turned inside out by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, supporters began streaming in, hungry to knock on doors. Ten people would have been useful, twenty an uncommon success. By 5 P.M., nearly a hundred people had crowded into Scholten’s headquarters.

Scholten, a former Justice Department attorney and immigrant-rights advocate, stood at the front of the room. On the wall behind her, a handwritten sign declared her determination to “ensure that women always have the right to make their own health care decisions.” Some in the audience held preprinted placards from NARAL, the abortion-rights organization, that read “Freedom Is for Every Body.” Scholten said that, as recently as a decade ago, she couldn’t have imagined such a showing for abortion rights in a place like Grand Rapids, which is near where Michigan’s Right to Life movement is based. The Supreme Court had frightened and infuriated many women, and more than a few men, who want abortion to be legal and accessible. Scholten aims to ride that energy into Congress, in search of a majority that “understands the depth and complexity of this issue and will always fight to protect women’s reproductive freedom.”

Prominent Michigan Democrats are moving reproductive rights to the center of their campaigns, testing the potency of an issue that has put Republican candidates on the defensive for the first time in years. A string of elections, most notably in Kansas, have shown significant increases in turnout among pro-choice voters. A Pew Research Center study released in August found that seventy-one per cent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents consider abortion very important, up from forty-six per cent in March, before the Court issued its Dobbs ruling. With only forty-one per cent of Republicans saying the same, some G.O.P. candidates appear to be sensing electoral danger in absolutist positions. Tom Barrett, who hopes to unseat Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat, in central Michigan, changed the wording on his Web site from “protect life from conception” to “consistent pro-life state legislator.” In a debate last week, he refused to specify whether he’d oppose abortion in cases of rape or incest when pressed by Slotkin and the moderator.

Across Michigan, battles over abortion rights are being fought in a startling number of political, judicial, and medical arenas. On September 7th, a Court of Claims judge stopped an effort supported by the Republican-controlled legislature to revive a 1931 law that would have made all abortions illegal, except to save the life of the mother. The next day, the state’s Supreme Court, in a 5–2 vote, approved a ballot measure for the November election that will ask voters to codify new reproductive rights, including the right “to make all decisions about pregnancy,” in the state constitution. A coalition of abortion opponents had tried to invalidate the petition, which was signed by three-quarters of a million people, by arguing that a lack of spacing between some words made it unintelligible. Chief Justice Bridget McCormack called the effort a bad-faith attempt to disenfranchise voters. “The challengers have not produced a single signer who claims to have been confused,” she wrote. “What a sad marker of the times.”

Democrats and Republicans alike expect the ballot initiative to drive pro-choice turnout, as it did in early August in Kansas, where voters—including Republicans, Independents, and residents of rural counties carried easily by Donald Trump— defeated an anti-abortion referendum by eighteen percentage points. Catholic organizations and their allies spent eleven million dollars on anti-abortion messages, but defenders of abortion rights spent slightly more. Sixty-nine per cent of Kansans who registered to vote after the Dobbs decision were women, Tom Bonier, a Democratic political strategist, found. In Michigan, according to his firm, women are out-registering men by a “meaningful” margin.

Democrats are upbeat about their prospects, buoyed by the record number of signatures, more than twice the required amount, to put the referendum on the ballot. (A recent poll commissioned by the Detroit Free Press found that nearly sixty per cent of Michigan respondents intend to vote yes.) They’re also wary given the other issues in play, from inflation and crime to education and taxes. “It would be a real mistake to assume everyone understands how dire and serious this moment is,” Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor, who is running for a second term, told me. This summer, she hosted a series of roundtables on abortion, part of her effort to publicize the stakes. “If we’re not successful, we would have to go international to get access to abortion care, by going to Canada, or going all the way to Illinois,” she said. “Which will mean a lot of women will not have access, and lives will be lost.”

In late August, I tagged along with Scholten as she canvassed in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in East Grand Rapids. (Gerald Ford, the former Republican President, once lived a few blocks away.) At one house, Suzanne Lich came to the door, recognized Scholten, and exclaimed, “It’s an honor to meet you!” She and her husband, Richard, used to vote Republican, but no longer. “We’re moderates. The Republican Party has gone off the deep end,” Suzanne told me. They had signed the petition to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot, and plan to vote for Scholten—and against her anti-abortion opponent. “Taking rights from women? Appalling,” Richard said. “We will never go back. They’ve lost us.”

Scholten, who is forty years old, has never held elective office. She started her career as a social worker, before going to law school and later joining the Justice Department, where she worked on the Board of Immigration Appeals during the Obama Administration. In 2017, unable to bear the sheer meanness of Trump’s Muslim ban or his family-separation policy, she quit. The work was incompatible, she has said, with her “moral and ethical obligations as an attorney and my own faith convictions as a Christian.” Soon afterward, she and her husband, Jesse Holcomb, a journalism professor at Calvin University, headed to Grand Rapids with their two young sons. There, she worked for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and volunteered for the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.

Two years ago, she lost a race for the same House seat to Peter Meijer, a Republican business heir. Within days of taking office, Meijer voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6th insurrection, infuriating Trump and his followers in Michigan. This year, Meijer was ousted in the primary, with an assist from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spent nearly half a million dollars on advertisements about John Gibbs, his arch-conservative opponent, who will face Scholten on November 8th. Gibbs is a former Trump Administration official, in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who once described the Democratic Party as “Islam, gender-bending, anti-police, ‘u racist!’ ” He will not admit that Trump lost the 2020 election, calling it “mathematically impossible,” even though Joe Biden won nationally by more than seven million votes, and by a hundred and fifty thousand votes in Michigan. On abortion, Gibbs describes himself as “one hundred per cent pro-life in all cases.” He tweeted, on the morning of the Dobbs decision, “God wins!” (Gibbs declined my requests for an interview. In a statement provided hours before publication, he called Scholten an “extremist” on abortion.)

In Hillary Scholten’s previous campaign, strategists discouraged her from talking about her faith. This time, she has put her Christian beliefs at the center of a campaign narrative.Photograph by Cory Morse / The Grand Rapids Press / AP

Scholten grew up conservative. Her first political memory is Bill Clinton becoming President—she was so sad that she cried. It wasn’t until her senior year in high school that she knew anyone who was publicly pro-choice. Back then, she recalled, “I would have said it’s murder, because that’s the only thing I’d heard.” Over time, her views softened, and she grew to resent such uncompromising visions of Christianity. No legislature, she pointed out, would prohibit blood transfusions at the insistence of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who oppose them.

Now a deacon in the Christian Reformed Church, Scholten begins each day by reading the Bible. In her last campaign, which she lost to Meijer by six points, strategists discouraged her from talking about her faith, believing it would alienate progressive voters. Even now, critics tell her to “knock off the God talk.” This time, she has put her Christian beliefs at the center of a campaign narrative about equity and social justice. She notes that poverty is often a significant catalyst for abortion. Government, she says, needs to widen opportunities for women, including better access to education, higher wages, and housing, “so that no woman is ever forced to select an abortion when she wouldn’t otherwise need to, or want to.”

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