Add Planned Parenthood to the list of organizations looking to take advantage of President Trump's low approval ratings in the 2018 midterm elections.
The organization is not new to the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics — and has often itself become a top issue for Republicans looking to slash federal funding for the organization — but this year Planned Parenthood Votes and Planned Parenthood Action Fund will launch their biggest-ever push to try to tip the balance in Congress and in key states.
Planned Parenthood sees the Trump administration as a threat and, with a Republican-controlled Congress, sees the danger to abortion rights as great as it has been in decades. But the upside for progressive groups is that Trump has also inspired a newly energized movement in protest of his policies. The best example of this so far is the massive Women's March on Washington, D.C., a year ago, a day after Trump's inauguration, and the hundreds of smaller marches across the country on that day and since.
Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, which along with Planned Parenthood Action Fund constitutes Planned Parenthood's political operation, says the group has committed an initial investment of $20 million to be used mostly on Senate and gubernatorial contests in eight states.
"We will be supporting candidates who support reproductive rights," Schifeling says, adding that such rights are "really at stake in the country, especially this year." She says "we support candidates who support access to Planned Parenthood and who support women and all people making their own health care decisions without interference from politicians."
Federal funding for Planned Parenthood — which is not an actual line item in the budget, but rather reimbursement for health care services provided to patients — has become a perpetual political battle in Washington. Republicans in Congress have long made ending any federal dollars for the organization a campaign issue. But so far, the funding survives.
Planned Parenthood's target list of states includes Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which were instrumental in Trump's 2016 victory. The others where Planned Parenthood will pour in money and resources are Arizona, Florida, Minnesota and Nevada — each of which has hotly contested races.
Notably, states so far not on the Planned Parenthood target list are two of the more conservative states, each of which has an incumbent Democratic senator on the ballot this year: Missouri and North Dakota. Both are states Trump won easily and where protecting abortion rights is a more difficult case to make with a more conservative populace.
This year's Planned Parenthood spending will mostly fund a network of grass-roots volunteers to reach out to voters where health care and the right to an abortion are considered important. That likely means a focus on suburbs and female voters. Schifeling says there will be a "robust door-to-door canvassing operation," but she adds that "we will also be investing in paid digital and some paid TV [advertising] in key races."
Voter turnout will be the key. The money being committed this year is already $5 million greater than the $15 million Planned Parenthood spent on the 2014 midterm elections.
Meanwhile, groups that oppose abortion rights are also expected to be active in many of the same states. The Susan B. Anthony List is one such organization. It has not released a dollar amount for its 2018 political operations, but it too will fund an aggressive door-to-door campaign in key states including Ohio, Florida and Missouri. Part of the argument these groups will use is that Trump has been their friend, that he named a solid conservative, Justice Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court and that such gains need to be protected.
For Planned Parenthood, a lesson of 2017 — when voter discontent over the Trump presidency helped fuel a swing of 16 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates from Republicans to Democrats and a near Democratic takeover — is that there are opportunities.