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Abortion rights in Maine could be at risk if Republicans reclaim the state government

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Access to abortion is protected in the state of Maine even if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade. But Republicans, including former GOP Governor Paul LePage, are running strong campaigns trying to reclaim control of state government - an outcome that could put Maine's abortion protections at risk. The question is whether Democrats and abortion rights advocates can match Republican enthusiasm this November. Steve Mistler from Maine Public Radio reports.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Can't go back. Can't go back.

STEVE MISTLER, BYLINE: Demonstrations about the seemingly imminent demise of Roe v. Wade have intensified here ever since a draft of the court's opinion was publicized.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) My decision. My choice. My decision. My choice.

MISTLER: At a recent protest in Portland, Maine, resident Heather Jamieson worried the next generation might not have access to a procedure that has been legal for nearly 50 years.

HEATHER JAMIESON: I am worried for my daughters. I'm worried for their friends. I'm worried for my grandchildren. Banning abortion does not stop abortion, it only creates unsafe abortions.

MISTLER: And abortion rights supporters have good cause for concern, says Nicole Clegg of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

NICOLE CLEGG: People are going to be harmed by what can potentially be happening here.

MISTLER: Even though Maine has a 28-year-old law signed by a Republican governor that protects access to abortions no matter what the Supreme Court decides, Clegg warned that it, too, could be overturned if an anti-abortion governor and legislature ascends to power in November.

CLEGG: They're laws. They are subject to repeal. Elections matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANET MILLS: I pledge to the people of Maine, so long as I'm governor, access to abortion care will be safe and legal in Maine, just as it is now. We will not go backwards.

MISTLER: Governor Janet Mills has positioned herself as a champion of abortion rights, like many Democratic legislative candidates facing elections this year. It might boost her reelection chances made uncertain by significant headwinds, including President Biden's low approval rating, voter concerns over inflation and an enthusiasm gap with a motivated Republican base.

Maine Republicans are also hoping the return of former Governor Paul LePage, a conservative firebrand often described as a Donald Trump prototype, will energize support for its entire ticket of candidates. Here's LePage at the state convention last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL LEPAGE: The choice in November is very clear. I stand for faith, freedom and trusting the Maine people.

MISTLER: LePage's campaign declined a request for an interview, but he recently released a statement reaffirming his, quote, "proven history of supporting life," end quote. It also left the door open to changing Maine's abortion laws without specifically saying how.

MIKE MCCLELLAN: I think I can safely say we have obviously seen him as an ally on life and issues like that.

MISTLER: Mike McClellan is a former Republican legislator who now works for the Christian Civic League of Maine, a group that is staunchly anti-abortion and influential in the Republican Party here.

MCCLELLAN: Our look is to the day that there's just no abortions at all in Maine and that they're not needed.

MISTLER: Maine is one of the most secular states in the country, but the religious right here punches above its weight in numbers with pew-to-polls activism and turnout. McClellan says anti-abortion candidates are winning elections, and as a result, Republican legislators are more unified in restricting abortion access than they were just a few years ago. And he anticipates a wide slate of anti-abortion bills if the GOP wins control of state government.

MCCLELLAN: All the polls suggest that even people that support abortion want limits to it.

MISTLER: So far, Republican candidates here seem poised to rely on voters' complex abortion views and their own vague plans in a post-Roe world to ride out the backlash. Meanwhile, Democrats like Governor Mills are framing access to the procedure as fundamental to a woman's right to self-determination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLS: This draft opinion declares that there's basically no right of privacy in the U.S. Constitution. That's extraordinary and extreme. It's an extremist view, and it shouldn't be tolerated, and I won't tolerate it at the state level.

MISTLER: Whether those concerns resonate with voters and help Mills win reelection this year is unclear. A recent poll taken before the release of the draft opinion showed her in a statistical dead heat with LePage.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Mistler in Augusta, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MILK'S "HIGGS BOSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.

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