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Heather Williams, president of DLCC: ‘Republicans are not listening to voters’ on abortion | Democrats

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Heather Williams, president of DLCC: ‘Republicans are not listening to voters’ on abortion | Democrats


It’s crucial for Democrats to connect with ordinary voters on the topic and focus on state capitols where Donald Trump allies are pressing for sweeping bans

Democrats should hammer extremist Republicans as “out of touch” with ordinary voters on abortion rights ahead of crucial state legislature elections next November, a leading party fundraiser says.

Heather Williams, whose appointment as president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) was first shared with the Guardian on Tuesday, urged her party to stay focused on state capitols, where allies of former US president Donald Trump are pursuing sweeping abortion bans.

Republicans are not listening to the voters and they don’t they don’t seem to care or feel any consequence for being on the wrong side of where not just voters in their state are, but where Americans are,” Williams, 42, said in an interview at the headquarters of the DLCC, the party’s campaign arm focused on state legislative races.

“I don’t know if it’s their values base, I don’t know what they’re doing, but whatever it is, it’s very out of touch. They don’t seem to connect to the consequences and so we’re going to continue to tell that story. As people connect to the impact of it on their real lives and the way that their lives take shape and what it means for them, Republicans are going to continue to be in the hot seat on these issues.”

Reproductive health care is a potential rallying point for Democrats in 2024 as Joe Biden faces stiff headwinds on the economy, border security and his age. Last year’s supreme court decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that enshrined a constitutional right to abortion, has boomeranged on Republicans in a series of special elections and ballot measures.

The human cost has been exposed in a series of legal actions and harrowing cases. On Monday a Texas woman who sued the state for an abortion after receiving a lethal fetal diagnosis fled the state in order to obtain the procedure. A pregnant woman in Kentucky has also gone to court to seek immediate access to an abortion.

In the absence of a national law, state capitols have become front line battlegrounds, making next year’s elections for state legislative chambers in 44 states arguably the most important yet. Williams, who has spent a cumulative 13 years at the DLCC and was more recently interim president, reflected: “The impact of legislatures and state government on one’s life has never been clearer and it’s a truly incredible time to be able to lead this organisation.”

Last week the DLCC announced its first round of 2024 battleground state investments, sending nearly $300,000 to Michigan, Arizona, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The committee is aiming to raise a record $60m for this cycle and as it seeks to continue a winning streak.

Last year it defied predictions of a “red wave” by maintaining control of every state Democratic majority and flipping four chambers – the best midterm year for the president’s party since at least 1934. The DLCC went on to over-perform in last month’s elections and win full control of the legislature in Virginia, where Governor Glenn Youngkin had threatened to sign a 15-week abortion ban if Republicans won both chambers.

Williams recalled: “In the lead up to the elections in Virginia, voters knew that, if they went to the polls on Tuesday and woke up with a Republican trifecta in their state legislature, there would be an abortion ban. That very clear line of stakes has resonated but also motivated people and we’re seeing more interest, engagement, enthusiasm, participation in legislative races.”

Glenn Youngkin, the Virginia governor, marches in an anti-abortion rally in February 2023. Democrats won full control of the legislature in the state elections. Photograph: Mike Caudill/AP

Yet still “Make America great again” anti-abortion extremism has been spreading in state legislatures. New Hampshire Republicans recently proposed an extreme ban at 15 days.Missouri Republicans are pushing a law that would allow homicide charges against women who obtain abortions. Legislation banning most abortions after 12 weeks became law in North Carolina after Republicans overrode a Democratic governor’s veto.

Opinion polls show such measures are wildly unpopular, even among Republican voters, and Democrats intend to continue shining an unforgiving light on them. Williams, originally from Moorhead, Minnesota, said:“A lot of people historically talked about the states as being sort of a laboratory for our democracy and a laboratory for policy ideas.

“It was a lot easier for them to happen under the radar when there was less attention on the ballot level and when people assumed that the issues were more benign or more local – state taxes and how are we spending that money, state regulatory framework for businesses.

“As the stakes have become clearer and as people have connected with what is happening in their state government, there’s a lot more eyes right on the kind of policies that are coming out and a lot more attention and I don’t think that Republicans are getting away with the undercover, nefarious things that they used to. There are just more alarms being sounded early.”

In the past, Democrats were slow to recognise the significance of state houses and senates. The party lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats during the presidency of Barack Obama. As of 5 December, Republicans controlled 54.75% of all state legislative seats nationally, while Democrats held 44.35%, according to Ballotpedia. Republicans held a majority in 57 chambers and Democrats held the majority in 39 chambers.

State legislative chambers are uniquely influential – and potentially dangerous – because they can move much faster than the federal government in Washington. This has resulted in abortion restrictions, book bans, attacks on transgender children’s rights, voter disenfranchisement and failure to tackle gun safety in schools.

Williams acknowledged: “Republicans came into the 2010 election with a national strategy that changed the landscape of state legislatures. They flat out were better at bringing their national party, their national donors or national strategists into these state races. Democrats still had a very local focus and approach – what happened in the states was important but it was in the state. It was very localised and 2010 changed that.

“I would argue that the silver lining in that was that the face of Democrats changed – the face of Democratic leadership, the face of Democrats running for office. We found diversity. There were women leaders, there were moms, there were people of colour and now we’ve got this incredibly representative, diverse coalition of Democrats in the states and in state leadership and through that lens, you just get better policy.”

The specter of Trump looms large in the Republican party of today. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

Now it is Republicans who are gambling by continuing to embrace Trump despite the string of defeats he and his endorsed candidates have suffered in recent years. Nowhere is his cult of personality more evident than in state parties, where white nationalist ideas and far-right conspiracy theories have been allowed to thrive among his foot soldiers.

Williams said: “He is their leader and he shifted the perspective of the Republican party. The Republican party that so many of us remember from before was one that cared about the budget and taxes and it was quite boring but you saw them through that lens. Sometimes voters agreed that it was time to buckle up and sometimes they were like, nope, that’s not going to work.

“Now you’ve got a Republican party where it’s like they’re constantly trying to outdo each other. The impact on people has gotten lost in that and it’s all now just, ‘OK, well, if you’re going to come across with an abortion ban at 20 weeks, well, I’m going to go to 15 and then I’m going to go to five and suddenly and you know what, I’m going to say 15 days.’ It snowballs because they’ve lost touch with what it actually means and who it actually impacts.

“They fundamentally believe that if somebody in their life needed access to reproductive healthcare, they would just get it because they they don’t think about anyone else. They just know that they’ve got access to it. That lack of connection to actual people, and more trying to win praise and attention and position within the party, has contributed to their lost ways.”

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