Minnesota Republicans carefully weigh abortion stance after Roe decision

·5 min read

Top Minnesota Republican candidates are treading carefully on the issue of abortion since the fall of Roe v. Wade, trying to balance the interests of steadfast anti-abortion activists in their party while staking out a position palatable to a broader set of voters in November.

Some have shifted their position or added emphasis to their support for abortion exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Many are trying to pivot away from the subject, arguing that abortion policy isn't going to change in Minnesota, where a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling provides constitutional protections for it.

"We have a constitutionally protected access to abortion for all women, and that's already established," GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen said in an interview at the Star Tribune booth on Tuesday. "Abortion is not on the ballot in November; what's on the ballot in November has got to be inflation, runaway crime, education, the overgrowth of government."

Jensen has publicly shifted his position since the spring, when he said in interviews that he would work to ban abortions in the state and only supported exceptions where the life of the mother is in danger. In late July, he released a video in which he suggested his past comments were "clumsy" and that he supports exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. He also stressed Tuesday that he supports an exception for a woman's mental health.

Despite Jensen's shift, the Democratic political group Alliance for a Better Minnesota is airing two TV ads across the state featuring women reacting to his past abortion comments.

"When you had Roe there, everything was an intellectual conversation. After the Dobbs case and it comes back to the states, now it's a real conversation," said state Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, who works on outreach for Pro-Life Action Ministries.

Abortion doesn't rank as the top issue for most voters this cycle, he said, but it activates certain voters whom Democrats have been openly trying to engage. Miller said Republicans should clearly state their position on abortion and stand by it, which will make it easier to move on to other issues.

"Now you really kind of have to say what you think and stick with it," Miller said. "The lines are more clearly drawn."

Jim Schultz, the Republican nominee for attorney general, took heat from a GOP opponent during a primary battle for saying he supports banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy but that he wouldn't use the office to advocate for it. Doug Wardlow, his opponent, blasted him as "pro-choice" and promised to "wage war" on constitutional protection for abortion in Minnesota. Wardlow handily lost the GOP primary.

The decisive defeat in early August of a Kansas constitutional ballot initiative that would have banned abortion demonstrated that most voters "really hate to see extreme rhetoric" on either side of the issue, said Amy Koch, a GOP operative and former Republican state Senate leader who is anti-abortion.

She thinks most voters also don't support a recent move from a Ramsey County judge to lift state abortion restrictions such as a requirement that abortions be performed in a hospital after the first trimester.

Her advice to Republicans: "Be thoughtful, be kind, be compassionate, and then pivot and offer actual solutions, because [abortion] is not a solution that's a good one, so what are we doing to help on the other side?"

In some of Minnesota's most closely watched congressional races, Republicans have been relatively muted on the issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

In the Second District race, Republican Tyler Kistner didn't put out a statement the day Roe fell. Out of more than 1,000 tweets found on Kistner's social media campaign account, he has used the word abortion in only two, including one in August 2020 in which he stressed: "In Congress, I will always fight for legislation to protect the unborn."

He publicly pushed back after the campaign of DFL Rep. Angie Craig, his opponent, put out a digital ad saying he supported a ban with no exceptions. Kistner said earlier this month that he supports exceptions for rape and incest.

"I stand exactly where I was when I started running on abortion, and I haven't changed my mind," Kistner said in an interview. "I'm pro-life, but I make exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest."

Asked whether abortion should be banned after a certain number of weeks, Kistner responded that "it's amazing, you guys keep asking me about my stance on abortion."

"Where does Angie Craig actually stand on abortion?" Kistner said. "I haven't seen you guys actually go after her."

Unlike Kistner, Republican congressional candidate and Navy veteran Tom Weiler put out a statement the day Roe was overturned, saying: "We have a duty to care for the most vulnerable among us from the very beginning of life until the end."

But as Weiler tries to take back what was once seen as a suburban swing seat held by Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips, he maintains that "in Minnesota's Third District, absolutely nothing has changed with abortion."

Weiler said he's "pro-life" but noted in an email that he "would support laws that allow for abortion in all instances of rape, incest or where the health of the women is at risk." He also declined in an interview to specifically discuss a timeline of abortion bans after a certain number of weeks.

"I believe life begins at conception," Weiler said. "So, to me, my personal belief is that. So, I think, when we talk about abortion, it's this really emotional and intense discussion, as it should be, because in my opinion we're talking about the life of a baby. And it's a balance of the liberty of the woman who is pregnant and the life of the child."