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GOP confidential memo advises Minnesota candidates how to talk about abortion

Memo says to refer to abortion as a "protected constitutional right in Minnesota."

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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Republican candidates, from governor on down to state legislative candidates, are showing remarkable consistency when discussing abortion, almost as if they are singing from the same hymnal.

In debate forums and campaign stops, area GOP candidates have resorted to similar rhetorical devices in deflecting the abortion issue, appearing to echo themes in a confidential GOP memo advising candidates how to handle the hot-button issue.

In the memo, sent Sept. 23 to GOP candidates, state GOP Chairman David Hann advised them to refer to abortion as a settled issue that “is not on the ballot” and a “protected constitutional right in Minnesota” before segueing to crime, inflation and the economy.

“Here are the facts: Abortion up to the moment of birth is a protected constitutional right in Minnesota. The only two ways this can be changed are by the Minnesota Supreme Court overturning the existing law or by Minnesota voters passing a state referendum,” the memo said.

“Since abortion is not on the ballot, let’s talk about the ongoing issues that affect Minnesotans every day: crime, inflation, the economy, and education.”

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Critics call the memo an artful dodge, but could it be a pathway to power for the GOP? Hann noted that the message had been developed and “tested.”

“The only issue right now that is working for Democrats is abortion,” said Minnesota political analyst Steven Schier. “You can see it in the heavy advertising, particularly in the governor’s race, about abortion. What the GOP wants to do is change the subject, and fortunately for them, they have the right conditions that allow them to do that.”

Abortion access returns to the states

The midterm elections are the first time in nearly 50 years that abortion looms as a major factor in voters’ minds. How much is anybody’s guess.

It became a relevant electoral issue after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade on June, 24, 2022, sending the decision about abortion back to the individual states. Up until then, access to an abortion was a constitutional right.

The thrust of the memo’s message is striking for its deviation from the state GOP party platform, which calls for changes to the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions to restore legal “protections to the lives of innocent human beings from conception to natural death.”

Whether a coincidence or not, area GOP legislative candidates appeared to hew to the GOP script in debates held earlier this month.

GOP candidate Wendy Phillips , running for House District 25A, said “abortion is not on the ballot this election cycle.”

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GOP state Rep. Duane Quam said he considered abortion closed as a legal matter, following the 1955 state Supreme Court decision in Doe v. Gomez.

GOP state Sen. Carla Nelson said in a forum that the state "Supreme Court has ruled on this.”

DFL candidate Aleta Borrud, who is running against Nelson for a state Senate seat, said it’s obvious that Nelson and other GOP candidates are being disingenuous on the abortion question.

“They are running away from a long-standing position that they hold,” Borrud said. “They will work to do everything possible to ban abortion if they have the opportunity to.”

When GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen made a campaign stop at Kathy’s Pub in Rochester on Sept. 18, his remarks echoed the memo’s talking points. It marked a contrast from earlier positions he had taken. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio on March 18, Jensen said he would ban abortions.

But Jensen told Rochester residents that abortion was “clearly not on the ballot, but what is on the ballot is to fight inflation, crime and education.”

Both Quam and Nelson said they had not heard about the memo before they talked about the issue at legislative forums. Quam noted that the memo went out on Friday, after his forum was held. Phillips did not respond to questions delivered via Facebook Messenger.

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Abortion a 'distraction'

Quam called abortion a distraction from the critical issues the state faces.

“You’re adding noise instead of focusing on what we need to fix,” Quam said when asked about the potential to change the state constitution through a referendum that the GOP could approve if they win both chambers. “Fix the crime problem. Fix the problem we have with mental health. We’ve got too many school districts failing students and parents.”

Borrud noted that Republicans could take a legislative route in restricting access to abortion. She noted that her opponent, Nelson, voted for a bill that would change the licensing requirements for abortion clinics, making them meet the requirements of hospitals.

“That would close every free-standing abortion clinic in Minnesota,” Borrud said.

Abortion access in Minnesota was fortified and expanded earlier this year when a Ramsey Court district judge struck down a number of longstanding abortion regulations.

DFL candidate Kim Hicks, a House District 25A candidate running against Phillips, supports a woman’s right to an abortion and said it would be a mistake to be complacent on the issue.

“It is absolutely on the ballot,” Hicks said. “Court cases are overturned all the time. What happened at the federal level can happen on the state level.”

How much the abortion question resonates with voters will be the big question of the election.

Abortion access is a critical issue to the Democratic base and abortion rights advocates, but less clear is how much it resonates across the political spectrum. Schier suggests voter worries about public safety and inflation could blunt its appeal for independents in this election cycle.

“The evidence suggests that that may be the limit of the appeal,” Schier said. “Independent voters may have a different agenda, which could be the economy, crime, inflation, immigration, all those things. It may help them at the margin, but it may not determine the outcome of the race.”

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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