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KJZZ's Friday NewsCap: Abortion rights could be the biggest ballot fight in Arizona history

KJZZ’s Friday NewsCap revisits some of the biggest stories of the week from Arizona and beyond.

This week, abortion rights advocates are one step closer to getting an initiative on the Arizona ballot, and GOP leaders are pushing for stricter immigration measures.

Stacy Pearson of Lumen Strategies and Matt Benson with the firm Veridus joined The Show to talk about these and more of the week’s headlines.

Conversation highlights

On the effort to put an abortion rights initiative on the November ballot

LAUREN GILGER: I want to start this morning with a few of the big issues that are making some news this week in Arizona and how they might affect those elections that are coming up. We’re going to talk about abortion and immigration to start with here. And let’s start with abortion.

This week, the group Arizona for Abortion Access announced it has about 500,000 signatures in its quest to get an initiative on the ballot that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. They only need about 384,000 signatures. So they’re way above that, and they continue to gather more. They say they’re going to keep going for a while.

So, Stacy, I want to start with you because I know you work in this spectrum. What does this say, you think, about enthusiasm for initiatives like this and for people wanting to act on this issue heading into this election?

STACY PEARSON: Oh, this demonstrates an extraordinary amount of enthusiasm and specifically with volunteers who are gathering signatures. So folks who are taking them to Easter, if you can believe, or hanging out with their girlfriends at happy hour and gathering a sheet full of signatures. What the initiative is going to continue to do is run up the score.

And there are so many ways these signatures are going to get challenged. And the the campaign is certainly prepared for robust challenges. And the best defense to those challenges is just having a heck of a lot more signatures than you need.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. So we have seen, Matt, in state after state since the fall of Roe v Wade — conservative states as well — voters want to protect the right to abortion. I wonder though, what’s your impression? If it’s on the ballot — assuming it makes the ballot and it’s on the same ballot as a presidential election and some talk top ticket items as well as, we should say, a whole lot of other things — what does it do to the rest of the ballot? Does it motivate people in the same way?

MATT BENSON: Well, I think it motivates Democrat voters and liberals and progressives in particular. And that’s part of the reason it’s going to be on the ballot in a presidential year. So it’s going to be a turnout mechanism for the left. And in all likelihood it will pass, assuming that it makes the ballot, there’s not some court challenge that knocks it off.

I think Republicans and conservatives will put up a fight against it. You’re going to see a well-funded. This is going to be probably the most expensive ballot fight in state history. It’ll be a big fight. But it certainly, in my opinion, benefits the left more than the right to be talking about abortion.

Especially, you know, we’ve got this court challenge that looms out there with the 19th century law in Arizona and whether that’s going to be in effect or not. And if the court decides that that territorial law is in effect, that will hurt Republicans even more.

GILGER: OK. Stacy?

PEARSON: Oh, exactly. If what happened in Florida recently happens in Arizona, where the oldest law sticks or the superior law sticks, we’re going to go back to a place where abortion is banned outright. And the law was written before we were a state. It was when leeches and cocaine were used in everyday medicine. I mean, we’re going back to a dark, dark time for women’s health.

BENSON: Now you say that like leeches and cocaine are bad.

PEARSON: I don’t use either — anymore.

GILGER: So there are a lot of these issues getting thrown into this debate, right? After we saw the Alabama Supreme Court decision on IVF, that kind of threw in another idea, this next frontier of like fetal personhood issues, things like that. Matt, how do you think and how are you watching Arizona candidates on the GOP side trying to kind of grapple with this issue as it seems clear where where public opinion lies?

BENSON: Can’t we just move on to border security? I mean, look, and I think that’s the point. If you’re a Republican, what you want to be talking about in this election year is inflation and the economy and pocketbook issues and border security, predominantly in states like Arizona and border states where it's a it’s a mess.

What you don’t want to be talking about are reproductive rights and IVF being illegal or not and things of that sort, territorial abortion laws. It’s not helpful.

GILGER: Stacy, are Democrats going to make sure that is the conversation?

PEARSON: I am so proud of us right now for finally having message discipline. We are sticking to an issue that is working for Democrats, and it’s unusual for us to do that. We’re usually a bit willy-nilly. Somebody is talking about school lunches, and somebody else is talking about the climate, and we’re all over the board. But right now the message discipline is ensuring that Democrats have a fair shot in November.

GILGER: Are you seeing the same kind of discipline from the GOP side, Matt?


GILGER: I mean, it’s been interesting to watch Republican candidates try to maybe shift or at least talk about this issue differently.

BENSON: I think that you’re going to see a better focus as we move along. And I think that among some of the top level candidates, I think you’re going to see focus on the economy and border security in particular. And a lot of talk about inflation.

Look, here’s going to be the question: Can we get the right candidates out of the primary, who have the best shot at winning in November? And in recent cycles, Republicans have consistently not done that, especially at some of these state-level races. So I think that’s going to be the question, because if you get the right candidates out of the primary, I think they’ll be focused on the right issues.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.