Planned Parenthood is charging into the 2020 elections after a challenging year that saw a slew of state-passed abortion bans and the loss of its president and millions of dollars in federal funding.
The organization’s super PAC announced Wednesday it would spend $45 million to defeat President Trump and flip the Senate in its “largest ever” electoral program, warning voters of a “coordinated attack” among Republicans to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling that established the right to an abortion.
“I think this is a really unique moment for us as an organization,” said Kelley Robinson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes. “The stakes are higher than ever, and we’re coming out more powerful than ever with our largest investment ever made.”
The financial commitment is a substantial increase from the $30 million Planned Parenthood committed to spending in the 2016 presidential election.
But the past year has raised questions about whether Planned Parenthood can enter 2020 with the same firepower it brought to the 2018 midterms, when it helped elect what Democrats describe as the first ever “pro-choice” majority in the House.
In 2019 alone, Planned Parenthood’s board of directors fired its president and engaged in a public dispute over the terms of her departure; its health centers lost millions of dollars in federal family planning funding under a new rule issued by the Trump administration; and it fought to keep open the last remaining abortion clinic in Missouri — a Planned Parenthood affiliate.
Meanwhile, the organization was trying to beat back a surge of state abortion bans, as 12 states in the first half of the year enacted some kind of ban on the procedure.
Overall, it’s been a challenging year for Planned Parenthood, an organization that has long played the dual role of a reproductive rights advocate and health care provider, making it more susceptible to political attacks by conservatives but highly influential among Democrats.
One former Planned Parenthood staffer said it seems as though the organization is constantly in “self-preservation” mode, fighting existential battles.
“When you focus on self-preservation, you play the game differently — more safe, not as aggressively,” the former staffer said, but predicted that next year will be different.
“There is no group that is more fired up for 2020 than women. I suspect that they’re able to right the ship.”
By Election Day, Planned Parenthood plans to reach 5 million voters, specifically those who they say are most harmed by Trump’s policies: women, people of color and LGBT people.
“We know we’re going to have a critical role mobilizing those folks to win back the Senate and expand the path to 270 to win back the presidency,” Robinson said.
Planned Parenthood’s $45 million campaign, which includes canvassing, mailings, television, radio and digital ads, will initially focus on battleground states the group considers key to winning the White House and flipping the Senate: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The ads will begin airing later this year, with broader investments expected down the line.
Robinson said Planned Parenthood has 13 million supporters and has spent the past two years building 600 volunteer-led organizing teams across the country.
But the organization’s challenges this year have energized anti-abortion activists, who argue Planned Parenthood is becoming more extreme.
“Planned Parenthood is absolutely on the defense,” said Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications for the Susan B. Anthony List, a D.C.-based organization that seeks to elect candidates who oppose abortion.
“All of the decisions that have been made at the highest levels this year have underlined their commitment to abortion in the most extreme cases and circumstances.”
Planned Parenthood’s health centers in August forfeited millions of dollars in federal family planning funds, which pay for birth control and other services for low-income patients, after the Trump administration banned Title X grantees from referring women for abortions. The loss of funding means some Planned Parenthood patients might have to pay more for care that was once subsidized by the government.
Planned Parenthood, which joined several states and organizations in suing over the rules, calls those changes a “gag rule” that interferes in the doctor-patient relationship, stopping providers from telling women where they can get abortions. Title X funds don’t cover abortions.
Anti-abortion activists argue Planned Parenthood’s decision to leave the program rather than comply with the new rules is proof it cares more about abortion than other health services.
Earlier this year, many of those activists seized on the unexpected firing of Dr. Leana Wen, the first medical doctor to lead Planned Parenthood in 50 years.
Wen, who held the job for only nine months, said she and the board of directors had “philosophical” disagreements: She wanted to depoliticize abortion while the board saw political activism as the best way to fight increasing attacks on abortion access coming from state lawmakers and the Trump administration.
Planned Parenthood staffers vehemently pushed back on Wen’s account, arguing her dismissal stemmed from poor leadership skills.
But Wen’s comments gave new momentum to anti-abortion groups that plan to go to head-to-head with the organization in 2020, painting it as an extremist organization that only cares about abortion.
Still, polls show that most Americans support the battles Planned Parenthood has been fighting.
In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in April, 56 percent of respondents said they oppose restricting family planning funds for groups that provide abortion referrals, and 69 percent said Planned Parenthood should continue to receive Medicaid funds.
“They have a really, really strong brand and a lot of people have no idea there has been any of these kinds of issues or changes,” said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic strategist who has worked with Planned Parenthood.
“Even in conservative states, people have very positive views of them,” she said. “They’re unique in their linkage to advocacy and service delivery, and people think it’s very appropriate they would be an advocate, with the services they provide.”
Planned Parenthood’s message will also be strengthened by the 12 states that have passed bans or restrictions on abortion this year in an effort to get the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade, Lake said.
Some of those bans, which have been blocked in the courts, do not include exemptions for rape or incest, despite 86 percent of Americans supporting those exemptions, according to an NPR–Marist poll.
“Very, very high numbers of voters are aware of the bans. That has not dissipated,” Lake said. “It’s remarkable that with a public that forgets things so fast, women in particular have not forgotten about the bans.”
Planned Parenthood has already scored a handful of victories heading into 2020, illustrating the influence it still wields in the Democratic Party.
In June, the group held its first ever presidential candidate forum, with nearly every Democratic White House hopeful participating and taking questions from Planned Parenthood staffers.
Additionally, all of the Democrats running for president have said they want to repeal the Hyde amendment, a long-standing ban on federal funding for abortions that Planned Parenthood argues is discriminatory to low-income people, particularly women of color.
When former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the party’s nomination, reaffirmed his decades-long support for the ban in June, he faced swift blowback from abortion-rights groups, including Planned Parenthood.
Biden later reversed his stance, saying he now opposes the Hyde amendment.
Robinson said changes like those are part of the group’s goals for 2020.
We are “holding every candidate to the highest standard” and “demanding more from every elected official,” she said.
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