MILWAUKEE (AP) — Amid critical races for governor and the U.S. Senate, Democratic hopefuls in Wisconsin are hoping their support for abortion rights will be strengthened in the face of a Supreme Court ruling that ruled Roe v. Wade picked up Republican favor overcoming headwinds of a long-awaited midterm election. But there is one key group who may not be mobilizing their strategies: black voters.
An issue strongly supported by white Democrats is more complicated in the black community, particularly among churchgoers, who hold more conservative views on abortion. The topic is so hot that most community organizers avoid addressing it.
“Among Black Baptists alone, that would split us in half,” said David Liners, executive director of WISDOM, a faith-based organizing group with a nationwide presence, when asked why his group isn’t organizing for abortion. Karen Royster, spokeswoman for Milwaukee’s Soul to the Polls, has called abortion “taboo” in church circles, making it difficult for faith leaders to address.
Other groups, like Black Leaders Organizing Communities, “won’t proactively bring up the issue” while reaching out to voters, but they will discuss it when it comes up, said Angela Lang, executive director of BLOC.
It’s an issue that will receive even more attention after a crucial statewide vote in heavily Republican Kansas last week to protect access to abortion, boosting Democrats’ hopes that the issue could stir up voters elsewhere.
AP VoteCast shows that black voters in the 2020 presidential election overall were more likely than white or Hispanic voters to say abortion should normally be legal. But among those who identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, the picture was different: White Democrats were more likely than Black or Hispanic Democrats to say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, 88% versus 77% versus 76% .
Valerie Langston, a 64-year-old Black woman from Milwaukee, is a Democrat supporter and supports abortion rights. She said she was afraid to raise the issue with friends because she was occasionally surprised to learn that some of them are anti-abortion.
“They will still vote Democrats even if they don’t agree with abortion,” she said.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who won the election four years ago by just over a percentage point, said he wasn’t concerned about voter enthusiasm. He has noted that he has vetoed nine bills in the Republican-controlled Legislature that would have restricted access to abortion. At a press conference, he expressed confidence that the issue will lead him to re-election.
“I don’t think there will be trouble,” Evers said when asked if he thought voters with different views on abortion might not be motivated to support him.
Physicians in Wisconsin have stopped performing abortions following the Supreme Court decision on an 1849 ban that Republican lawmakers have announced they plan to update. Anti-abortion groups have said they will work to clarify the law to defend against challenges.
State Senator La Tonya Johnson, a black Democrat representing a black-majority district in Milwaukee, noted that many voters are focused on economic concerns. She said she hasn’t seen any groups going door-to-door to talk about abortion rights, even though black women are more likely than any other group to have an abortion, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party’s engagement teams, which work directly with voters of color year-round, prefer to have conversations where voters are taking them, spokeswoman Iris Riis said. When it comes to abortion, “it’s not the only thing we talk to voters about, but we do talk about it,” she said.
Shakya Cherry-Donaldson, executive director of 1000 Women Strong, a national political organizing group focused on issues affecting black women, prefers a more direct approach. The key is to focus on the idea that “we need to have autonomy from the state,” she said — a message that resonates enough in a historically marginalized community to overcome personal and religious views about the morality of abortion .
“The framework of our message is that we cannot go back, only forward. Civil rights were won for all of us,” Cherry-Donaldson said.
But her group is not in Wisconsin this year, focusing her efforts on seven other states where she has been able to support her work both personally and financially.
Paru Shah, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee whose work focuses on race, ethnicity and politics, said Democrats would do well to make sure they educate on issues like crime and voting rights, rather than focusing on one specific one subject to focus demolition.
“Among Democrats in general, there isn’t a lot of voting on individual issues, but there’s not much voting on individual issues, but especially among black women, who have been the backbone of Democratic voter turnout for at least the last 10 years,” Shah said.
The GOP’s strategy and message for reaching out to Black voters on abortion will be the same in the mid-term as it has been for decades.
“What we’re going to do is explain the excessive – I would say biased – access to abortion that’s being pushed on African American women,” said Gerard Randall, chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s African American Council.
“You will certainly hear a similar message of caution from the pulpits in many of your churches when it comes to access to abortion,” he said.
Still, Wisconsin Democrats see the issue as key to winning both the gubernatorial and US Senate races this fall.
Polls by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most people in the United States want Congress to pass legislation guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide, and an overwhelming majority also think that States should allow abortion in certain cases, including for a woman’s health and for rape.
The Democratic front-runner in the Wisconsin Senate campaign, Lt. gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black, emphasizes access to abortion as a civil right. In his latest TV spot, Barnes, who grew up in Milwaukee, and his mother discuss their decision to end a complicated pregnancy. LaJuan Barnes emphasizes that she could choose: “It was my decision, not that of some politicians.”
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. Follow Harm on Twitter.