BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — At the height of Louisiana’s debate over a strict new abortion ban, phone calls poured into Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office, from people urging him to jettison the measure and threatening to withhold votes for his reelection bid as he signed the new law.
So many hundreds of calls bombarded the governor’s office in opposition to the ban on abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy that workers couldn’t physically log all the complaints into a computerized system.
Staffers scribbled opponents’ names onto handwritten sheets of paper, documenting an angry flood of people who could potentially upend the second term chances of the Deep South’s only Democratic governor.
“Will lose my vote if he does not veto this bill,” one caller declared, according to documents provided to The Associated Press in partial response to a public records request. “Wanted the governor to know that if he doesn’t oppose it, she will not be voting for him,” another caller was recorded as saying.
Months later, Edwards is hoping the heat of that moment has passed and that abortion rights voters, many of whom make up the Democratic base he needs to win, won’t judge him solely for that signature in Saturday’s election.
“What I’m encouraging everybody to do is to look at the totality of the issues … what I’ve actually done over the first four years and then vote for the candidate with whom you agree more often than not,” the governor said in an interview.
As they try to build a sustained campaign against efforts to curb access, abortion rights advocates have had trouble keeping Democrats united nationally on the issue. Never is that more evident than in Louisiana, where the Democratic Governors Association has embraced Edwards’ reelection campaign, calling it the top priority among three governors’ races this year, even though Edwards’ anti-abortion stances are fundamentally at odds with the party’s platform.
Edwards faces two main Republican challengers: Ralph Abraham, a third-term congressman from rural northeast Louisiana, and Eddie Rispone, a wealthy Baton Rouge businessman and longtime political donor making his first bid for office.
Polls show Edwards well ahead of his competitors, with Abraham and Rispone trying to force him into a runoff. In Louisiana, all contenders run on the same ballot regardless of party. If Edwards doesn’t top 50% of the primary vote, he’ll face a head-to-head Nov. 16 matchup against the second-place finisher.
Although the Democratic incumbent deviates sharply from his GOP opponents on many issues, there’s no distinction among the men on abortion — all oppose it.
Edwards, a Catholic, ran as an anti-abortion candidate four years ago. His position, while out of step with the national Democratic Party, is considered one of the issues that helped him win over voters in a red state where every other statewide elected official is a Republican. Since taking office in 2016, Edwards has backed multiple abortion restrictions.
But the ban that Edwards signed into law in May drew more vocal outrage.
Louisiana joined several other conservative states in passing a so-called “heartbeat law,” prohibiting abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected, often before many women realize they are pregnant. None of the bans have taken effect, amid legal challenges. Louisiana’s law, which doesn’t contain exceptions for pregnancies from rape or incest, would begin only if neighboring Mississippi’s law is upheld by a federal appeals court.
Edwards said the bill signing was consistent with his “pro-life positions,” which he said also included expanding Louisiana’s Medicaid program, increasing supports for youth in foster care and combating human trafficking.
Fierce criticism came from Democrats around the nation — including the head of the Louisiana Democratic Party, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans. Opponents said the laws would effectively eliminate abortion as an option in Louisiana and other states, violating women’s rights.
“I just didn’t think he would sign something so prohibitive. God, not even in cases of incest? That just went too far, even if he is pro-life,” said Marina Toledo, 47, an immigration lawyer from Jefferson Parish.
Toledo was among the deluge of callers in May who told Edwards’ office he “would lose her vote” by signing the abortion ban into law. But five months later, while Toledo said the bill signing still stings, she’s planning to vote again for Edwards. She said she couldn’t support his “pro-Trump” opponents.
“It’s just the lack of better options,” Toledo said.
That appears to be Edwards’ key selling point to disgruntled abortion rights voters: They don’t have another major candidate in the Louisiana governor’s race espousing their point of view on that issue, but Edwards is in line with them on other topics.
Even as they advocate for abortion rights across the country, Democratic Party organizations are spending millions encouraging their base to show up in full force for Edwards on Election Day. Two weeks ago, Peterson was front and center at a New Orleans endorsement event with the governor, describing her support for his second term.
Neily Kambeitz-Byrd, 40, a nonprofit events coordinator in Baton Rouge, protested at the Louisiana Capitol against the abortion ban in the spring, saying the law threatens public health and women’s rights.
“I feel like I’m fighting the same thing my grandmother fought and my mother fought, and that’s very sad to me,” she said.
But Kambeitz-Byrd grudgingly selected Edwards in the weeklong early voting period.
“It was painful to cast that vote,” she said. “I just wish that there had been alternatives for us here to choose from.”
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