WA Democrats claim some Republicans privately support — but may not vote for — abortion protections
Washington state Democrats want to add abortion rights to the state's Constitution, but they need Republican votes to make that happen.
A resolution to amend the state Constitution is currently winding its way through committees in Olympia. The resolution would need to win a two-thirds vote in both the state Senate and House before it can be put on a ballot for voters. The problem for Democrats is, they don’t have that two-thirds vote in either body in Olympia.
But some lawmakers told KUOW they still have hope for Senate and House joint resolution bills, claiming that a few Republicans privately back abortion rights and might be convinced to vote with Democrats, eventually.
It’s not clear who these mysterious members of the GOP are – neither Democrats nor Republicans who spoke to KUOW for this story are naming names.
In the current hyper-partisan political environment, any Republican elected official who deviates from the party line risks a form of excommunication, despite polling on the abortion issue that suggests many shades of gray among conservative voters.
Given that, it doesn’t seem likely that any Republican will break ranks and vote with Democrats on abortion rights anytime soon, but Democrats aren’t ready to give up.
“I’m not saying it can't be done,” said Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), who co-sponsored the amendment proposal that Governor Jay Inslee has called for. “But it is a long hurdle to jump.”
Abortion has been legal in Washington for decades. Current state law allows abortion before fetal viability, or to save the pregnant person's life or general health. State Democrats say the purpose of a constitutional amendment is to make it much harder for an activist U.S. Supreme Court to take those existing abortion rights away.
“The only protection we have is to ensure we have clear, specific reproductive freedoms specified in our Constitution,” said Keiser. Voters in three states — Michigan, Vermont, and California — have already approved constitutional amendments on abortion rights.
To secure a two-thirds vote in Washington, Democrats would likely need to secure five additional votes in the Senate (where one Democrat caucuses with Republicans), and eight more in the House. It won’t be easy.
So far, GOP lawmakers appear to be sticking together to oppose a constitutional amendment. Many cite personal religious beliefs.
“It's a moral absolute, for a number of us that follow our faith,” said Sen. Jeff Holy (R-Spokane) in a recent hearing. “And because of that you'll understand my position on this bill.”
Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) claims existing state law is adequate enough to protect abortion rights.
“The constitutional amendment is more a show horse, but not a work horse. It's clearly done to make a statement,” Walsh said.
But Walsh also told KUOW the amendment might have a chance.
“There may be some people who support it on my side of the aisle,” he said.
Keiser said she agrees with that assessment, claiming there are Republican lawmakers in Olympia who quietly support abortion rights. But Keiser said none will tell voters their true beliefs, for fear of antagonizing their base.
Other Democrats, including Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, told KUOW the same thing, but none would reveal who those pro-abortion rights Republicans are.
We did find one Republican senator whose perspective is not as black-and-white as many of his colleagues: Ron Muzzall, of Oak Harbor.
“I wouldn't deny anyone the right to make the decision based on their morals,” Muzzall said of his position on abortion in a recent Senate hearing.
Muzzall opposes abortion personally but told KUOW he supports the right to choose an abortion early in a pregnancy.
“I think it's a first trimester decision and after that, it's not,” he said.
Nevertheless, Muzzall said he plans to stick with his Republican caucus and oppose the constitutional amendment, which he called “performative politics.” He and other Republicans claim Democrats are the ones who are unwilling to make compromises on the abortion issue.
State lawmakers weren’t always so neatly divided along party lines on this issue. A few decades ago, pro-abortion Republicans were more common – or they shared their opinions more publicly, at least. But things started to change in the 1980s and early 1990s, according to former state Rep. Sherry Appleton.
Early in her career, Appleton served on the Poulsbo City Council as a center-right conservative who supported abortion rights. She felt the GOP shifting, becoming less tolerant of her views on abortion, she said.
In 1992, she decided to try and take her party back, she said, by running against a devout Republican state Senator, Ellen Craswell, who opposed abortion rights.
“She was the kind that you went into her office, and if you wanted to talk to her, you had to get down on your knees and pray with her,” Appleton said.
Appleton lost that race. Not long after, she switched her party affiliation to Democrat.
“My party left me, I didn't leave the party,” she recalled. Appleton went on to serve more than 15 years as a Democrat in the state legislature. She retired at the end of 2021.
A handful of Republicans who publicly called themselves "pro-choice" continued to serve in the legislature, until recently — 2018 was a big turning point. That year, an insurance bill passed to include abortion coverage. Two Senate Republicans, Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) and Joe Fain (R-Auburn), voted for it. It was the last time a major abortion rights bill got bipartisan support.
Given that, it may appear Keiser's new constitutional amendment is doomed. If she can’t convince Republicans this year, Keiser said she’ll just keep trying.
“We'll see what happens. It takes time to build pressure. It takes time to build attention,” Keiser said.