Hassan vs. Bolduc: Why Democrats in NH are focused on abortion. What do voters think?


Sen. Maggie Hassan speaks with reporters Sept. 10, 2022, after a canvassing kickoff event with Democrats in Dover, N.H. (Steven Porter/Granite Memo)

Steven Porter, GSNC

PORTSMOUTH — The four Democratic leaders who spoke during a recent press conference at the Portsmouth Public Library delivered a singular warning.

New Hampshire’s current race for U.S. Senate could have dire implications for abortion rights nationwide, they said, if voters pick the Republican candidate, Don Bolduc, over incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat. 

The message will sound familiar to anyone who’s paid any attention at all to the central themes Democrats have been emphasizing ahead of the Nov. 8 general election, which is the first big vote since the U.S. Supreme Court overruled its decades-old precedents on abortion, giving state and federal lawmakers a greenlight to consider imposing new restrictions. 

Polling suggests most Granite Staters will respond positively to messages in favor of abortion rights. What’s less clear is how voters with nuanced views on this topic will make sense of a partisan debate that directly involves shifting policies at both the state and federal levels. 

While Democrats argue Republicans intend to clamp down on women’s access to reproductive health care, Republicans contend that Democrats have staked out a position that’s too extreme.

Both parties agree on at least one thing: the stakes riding on this U.S. Senate race are high, as the GOP aims to reclaim its majority. 

Democrats, Bolduc spar over his stance on abortion

The Democrats who spoke in Portsmouth last week said Hassan has consistently supported abortion rights, while her GOP challenger, Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general, has consistently opposed those rights and would continue to do so if voters send him to Washington. 

“Don Bolduc’s record makes it clear that not only does he have complete and utter disregard for Granite Staters’ reproductive rights, but he would be an unequivocal ‘yes’ vote to pass a national abortion ban,” said Portsmouth Democrats Chair Shanika Amarakoon. 

Portsmouth Democrats Chair Shanika Amarakoon participates in a press conference Sept. 22, 2022, with fellow Democrats who criticized recent comments about abortion from Gen. Don Bolduc, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. (Steven Porter/Granite Memo)

State Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, D-Portsmouth, similarly said Bolduc’s stance has been unambiguous and uncompromising. 

“We must all fear that he would be the vote that gives the Republicans the majority they need to pass a nationwide abortion ban,” she said. 

Bolduc, however, has recently said he wouldn’t support an abortion ban at the federal level.

To be sure, Bolduc campaigned against abortion ahead of the GOP primary. During a debate last month, he said he “will always fight for” the idea that human life begins at conception. Health care is designed to save and improve human life, not end it, he added. “Killing babies is unbelievably irresponsible,” so people need to step up and protect them, he said.

But when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a bill this month to restrict abortion rights nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Bolduc said the bill “doesn’t make sense.” What’s more, Congress should stay out of abortion policymaking and instead let state lawmakers decide how to handle this issue, he said. 

The fact that Bolduc has said he wouldn’t vote for a nationwide abortion ban has led some of his supporters to accuse Democrats of lying when they claim he would. (A similar dynamic is playing out in the 1st Congressional District, where GOP nominee Karoline Leavitt is challenging Democratic incumbent Rep. Chris Pappas.) 

When asked about the disconnect, the Democrats in Portsmouth said they don’t trust Bolduc to stick to his word if he wins. They argued he would reverse his stated stance on a nationwide abortion ban, just like he recently disavowed his past claims about the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

Bolduc falsely claimed just last month that President Donald Trump won reelection in 2020, but now he admits the election “was not stolen.” 

Stefany Shaheen, a member of the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s executive committee, said voters shouldn’t believe what Bolduc is telling them about abortion. 

“You can’t say something when it’s convenient to help you get elected in a primary and then rewrite your record and want us as voters to believe that now what you’re saying is actually true,” Shaheen said. “That’s not how it works.”

Bolduc campaign spokesperson Kate Constantini pushed back, saying Hassan and other elected Democrats have a record of promising one thing on the campaign trail then doing another in office.

“Now Hassan’s hack allies are getting scared and resorting to lying about the record of General Bolduc rather than face the music that’s coming in six weeks,” Constantini said Tuesday. 

Polling and competing themes in NH elections

As Hassan and the Democrats have made abortion a centerpiece of their political argument, Bolduc and the Republicans have emphasized issues related to the economy, as steep inflation and rising fuel costs put financial pressure on households across New Hampshire. 

Those messaging priorities may make sense for candidates trying to motivate their base. 

When asked about the top two issues making them more likely to vote this fall, 81% of Democrats, 24% of independents and 3% of Republicans cited abortion or women’s rights, according to a Granite State Poll conducted online this month by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center

Meanwhile, 78% of Republicans, 73% of independents and 22% of Democrats cited the economy, inflation or the cost of living.

“The responses to this question illustrate the campaign themes of both parties,” said Andrew Smith, Ph.D., director of the UNH Survey Center.

Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general who’s running for U.S. Senate, speaks with supporters Sept. 10, 2022, at a town hall in Laconia, N.H. (Steven Porter/Granite Memo)

A poll last month from the Saint Anselm College Survey Center took a closer look at what registered voters mean when they say they either support or oppose abortion rights. The poll concluded that 71% of respondents were “pro-choice,” while 25% were “pro-life.” 

That 71% figure — which the Democrats in Portsmouth cited last week — included 29% who said abortion should be allowed “with no restrictions,” plus 42% who said abortion should be allowed “with some restrictions.” 

That last group, the voters who favor abortion rights with some restrictions, may be who Republicans have in mind when they accuse Democrats of taking things too far. 

Claims of abortion ‘extremism’ by Dems and GOP extend to NH governor’s race

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said this week Democrats are “absolute fools” to be talking about abortion the way that they are.  

“The fact that the Democrats are tripling down on the abortion issue is actually highlighting their extremism,” Sununu said Tuesday on the radio show “Good Morning NH” with Jack Heath. 

Sununu, who’s running for reelection, was responding to comments his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Dr. Tom Sherman had made on the show the day before. 

Sherman said New Hampshire’s current 24-week abortion ban, which took effect this year, “puts women’s health care in the third trimester at extreme risk.” Doctors should be able to make judgments about appropriate medical care throughout a pregnancy without risking a felony charge for an abortion that officials might later conclude doesn’t fit within one of the exceptions outlined in state law, he said. 

After all, Sherman said, anyone who’s getting an abortion in New Hampshire after 24 weeks has reasons that call for that abortion. 

“There are no elective abortions performed in New Hampshire — and we know this from data and testimony — after 24 weeks,” Sherman said. “In fact, it’s rare that there’s anything after 14 weeks in New Hampshire.”

When asked for more detail about the data and testimony Sherman was citing, campaign spokesperson Kelly Roberts pointed to records the New Hampshire Senate reviewed earlier this year while considering House Bill 1609, which broadened the list of exceptions to the state’s new abortion ban to include fatal fetal anomalies. 

Those records included written testimony from more than 60 obstetricians, family doctors, midwives and nurse practitioners, who wrote that “no elective terminations at or after 24 weeks are performed in New Hampshire.”

Nationwide, abortions after 21 weeks are rare. In 2016, 91% of abortions were performed at or before 13 weeks of gestation, according to data from 48 states compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just 1.2% of abortions were performed at or after 21 weeks. (New Hampshire wasn’t among the 48 states that contributed data for the CDC report.) 

The Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for abortion rights, reported that a total of 2,050 abortions were performed in New Hampshire in 2020. If the state matches the nationwide trends outlined in the CDC report, then about 25 of those abortions would have happened at or after 21 weeks of gestation.

Sununu’s claims called ‘inflammatory and false’

Sherman was asked repeatedly during Monday’s radio interview whether he supports any abortion restrictions at all. Each time, he said physicians should be the ones making medical decisions. 

Sununu criticized Sherman’s answers and argued that the state’s 24-week ban is a reasonable restriction that Democrats should support.

“The fact that they go so extreme and they’ve now owned that they’re OK with folks having abortion right up until the moment of birth, that’s extreme. … They have to own that extremism,” Sununu said on Tuesday. 

That comment drew a sharp rebuke from Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund. 

“This inflammatory and false rhetoric is used to try to distract voters from anti-abortion politicians’ abysmal reproductive health records by peddling falsehoods about abortion care later in pregnancy,” said Kayla Montgomery, the group’s vice president of public affairs. “No one is OK with abortion ‘up until the moment of birth’ because it simply doesn’t exist — that’s not how medicine, science, or pregnancy works.

“When abortion is needed later in pregnancy it’s due to complex situations like the health of the woman or the fetus,” Montgomery added. “We know this because families in these complicated circumstances have been forced to bear their scars and relive their trauma in an effort to amend Chris Sununu’s cruel abortion ban — which he signed into law without any exceptions for rape, incest, or fatal fetal diagnoses.”

Sununu, who has described himself as a “pro-choice governor,” signed the state’s 24-week abortion ban into law last year. The policy included exceptions to save the life of the mother, but it didn’t include exceptions for cases of rape or incest or fetal anomalies.

Sununu signed a follow-up bill this year that added fatal fetal anomalies to the list of exceptions and limited the original bill’s requirement that ultrasounds be performed before any abortion.

Whether abortion policies in New Hampshire change again next year may depend on the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.

This story is being shared by the Granite State News Collaborative. Steven Porter is founding editor of Granite Memo.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project.  It was edited by Seacoast Media, a partner in the collaborativeFor more information visit collaborativenh.org.