Arizona abortion-ban fight further jolts a packed GOP congressional primary

On Tuesday night, Arizona state House Speaker Ben Toma found himself on defense, pushing back on criticism that he could have stopped the effort to repeal the state’s near-total abortion ban that dates back to 1864.

“I’d like to see how you stop it in the Senate on Wednesday,” the Republican quipped to GOP state Sen. Anthony Kern, less than 24 hours before the state Senate took up, and ultimately passed, a measure to repeal the Civil War-era ban. The state House approved the bill last week.

But Toma and Kern weren’t facing off at the state Capitol. Instead, they were clashing at a Republican primary debate in Arizona’s ruby red 8th Congressional District.

The Arizona Supreme Court’s bombshell decision last month that a 160-year-old abortion ban is enforceable has added another layer to a crowded and competitive race that will shed light on where the party’s core base in a key battleground state stands.

As Republicans nationally and in the state have grappled with the potential fallout over the issue this year, the party’s candidates in this Phoenix-area district are embracing one of the strictest abortion bans in the country ahead of this summer’s primary.

“I’m 100% pro-life,” Toma said after voicing support for a federal abortion ban. “I think recent events at the state Capitol have been very clear on where I stand on that issue. So I really don’t have much else to say.”

It’s not yet clear if Toma’s turn in the spotlight over the state’s abortion ban could elevate him in the primary and ultimately help send him to Congress. Abortion did not come up until 42 minutes into the hourlong Arizona PBS debate, and some Republican strategists in the state say issues like border security and voting rights are higher priorities for GOP primary voters.

But as the congressional hopefuls described themselves as “pro-life” on Tuesday, it became clear that support for the abortion ban — and not the repeal effort — is a political asset rather than a liability in this deeply conservative district.

Controversies looming

Even before the Arizona state Supreme Court ruled to reinstate the ban — a law that can send a doctor to prison for providing an abortion — there were several controversies hanging over the Republican primary race in the 8th District.

A former congressman forced to resign over a pregnancy surrogacy scandal. A former state attorney general candidate who lost two years ago by just 280 votes — and who continues to maintain the election was stolen from him. A state senator and “fake elector” during the 2020 race who has been indicted on charges related to his efforts in trying to overturn that election. A candidate who lost a high-profile U.S. Senate race in 2022. And Toma, who has led the charge against repealing the highly publicized abortion ban.

The 8th District — in the northwest valley of the metropolitan Phoenix area with an older, retired population and a large chunk of evangelical Christians — is solidly Republican. The winner of the July 30 primary is all but certain to defeat likely Democratic nominee Greg Whitten in November. As a result, the crowded field of conservatives haven’t had to litigate the broader issue of reproductive rights the way national and statewide Republicans in Arizona have been forced to.

“All of them are pretty much on the same page,” Phoenix-based Republican strategist Barrett Marson said, referring to the GOP field’s collective views on abortion. “This district is probably pretty pro-life.”

The debate over the repeal isn’t “going to be an issue in this district because they’re all for the ban,” he said.

“It doesn’t even seem like abortion is the main issue they’re fighting over,” added a Republican operative in the state. “They’re fighting over who is the establishment candidate and who’s toughest on the border.”

That dynamic has, subsequently, allowed candidates to fight a litany of other hot-button issues that have helped make Arizona the center of 2024 politics, including their MAGA credentials, endorsements and border issues.

Toma has remained vehemently opposed to the legislative effort to repeal the near-total abortion ban, a position that several strategists in the state said suggested he was looking to carve out a lane to appeal to social conservatives in the crowded field. He even filed a brief in the case advocating for upholding the 1864 law and twice used his power in legislative sessions last month to kill a repeal bill on procedural grounds.

A spokesperson for Toma’s campaign didn’t respond to questions. In floor proceedings over the last three weeks, Toma has spoken passionately and emotionally about his position against repealing the ban.

“I would ask everyone in this chamber to respect the fact that some of us believe that abortion is, in fact, the murder of children,” he said during an April 17 session during which Republicans in the chamber blocked a vote on a repeal for the second time in two weeks. (The following week, state House lawmakers succeeded in passing the repeal after three Republicans joined all 29 Democrats in the chamber.)

Toma was endorsed by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz, who announced in October that she was retiring after representing the 8th District for six years, as well as former Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

Battle over Trump ties

Meanwhile, the two candidates thought to be the main front-runners in the race — Blake Masters, a financier who lost his 2022 U.S. Senate bid, and Abraham Hamadeh, who lost his 2022 race for state attorney general by just 280 votes and has made claims that the race was stolen from him a centerpiece of his current campaign — have barely mentioned the abortion ban at all.

Instead, the two seem to be duking it out over who remains closer to former President Donald Trump and his MAGA brand. Hamadeh won Trump’s endorsement, a fact he frequently notes.

“It is likely the most meaningful endorsement in a Republican primary,” said Constantin Querard, an Arizona-based political strategist, who is not working with any of the campaigns in the race but has worked for the legislative campaigns of Toma and Kern.

“It dominates Abe’s messaging,” he added. “Obviously they recognize it as being significant. Particularly in a crowded primary, [when] you’re trying to figure out how to get to the 30% first, you can see why he might focus so entirely on that message.” (In a field with six candidates, the victor likely wins the race with just a plurality of the vote.)

But Masters, who received Trump’s endorsement during his Senate run two years ago, said in his first cable TV ad last month that he was an “America First fighter” who will “back Trump 100%.”

Responding to questions from NBC News, a spokesperson for the Hamadeh campaign referred to remarks the candidate made to conservative news outlet Newsmax last month calling the state Supreme Court ruling “a complete win for Democrats” because it was “not being enforced” by state officials.” He added that he believed “the effects” of the reinstated 1864 ban are not “actually going to be that significant.”

A spokesperson for the Masters campaign didn’t respond to questions. Masters told the Arizona Republic, in response to questions about his position on the 1864 law, “I’m proud to be pro-life and I make no apology for it.” Masters said during his failed 2022 Senate bid that he would support a national abortion ban similar to Arizona’s 1864 law.

Comeback attempt

While strategists in the state see Hamadeh, Masters and Toma as the three main competitors in the race, none were willing to totally discount two other men in the race, despite their massive baggage.

One of those candidates is Trent Franks, who served in Congress for 16 years before abruptly resigning in 2017, acknowledging at the time that he discussed surrogacy with two former female staffers. Shortly after he resigned, another allegation surfaced that Franks offered a staffer $5 million to have his child due to his family’s struggles with infertility.

The other candidate is Kern, who was among 18 Trump aides and allies indicted last month by an Arizona grand jury for their role in a broad effort to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election in the state.

Franks in particular could end up eking out meaningful support. He is well known in the area after serving in Congress and remains closely connected to the area’s large evangelical community. Strategists, however, still debate the impact of his surrogacy scandal seven years ago.

“I don’t think voters are terribly concerned with why he left office,” said Querard. “A lot of time has passed.”

On the other hand, explained Marson, “the problem is every time you Google ‘Trent Franks,’ his scandal is what pops up.”

Even if there isn’t much difference in the positions on abortion among the candidates, having a record to back up that stance could matter in a crowded primary with a heavy concentration of evangelical voters.

“The advantage Toma has — and Kern and Franks to a certain degree — is Masters has no voting record on life, Abe has no voting record on life,” Querard said.

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