Gov. Tim Walz is going on the offensive on the issue of abortion in his campaign for re-election, hoping to rally the Democratic base around fears that a Republican administration would move to undo Minnesota's status as an abortion haven in the Upper Midwest.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Walz charged that his Republican opponent Scott Jensen's position on abortion is among the most extreme in the nation and touted his own recent executive order aimed at protecting people who seek or provide abortions in Minnesota from criminal penalties.
"This isn't a nuanced position between myself and my opponent. This is as far as the Grand Canyon could be in how we view women and how we could help them," said the first-term DFLer, standing alongside abortion rights proponents and providers.
Conservative activists are also motivated by the issue of abortion, but they've been treading carefully in their comments since Friday's Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. Republicans have been focusing their messaging this cycle on rising prices, school choice and crime.
"I can certainly understand why the Democrats are fearful of those three issues because, honestly, they are being held responsible," Jensen said in an interview Tuesday.
Jensen said he's not shy about the fact that he's opposed to abortion, but he pushed back on the characterization of his position as "extreme." In past interviews he said he supports a ban on abortion except when the life of the mother is in danger, without exceptions for rape and incest. On Tuesday, Jensen said those factors could sometimes fall within the "realm" of endangerment of the mother's life and should be discussed privately with her physician.
"The burden of this pregnancy may literally be putting her life in danger. People might think she is fine, but she might be close to thinking about what life would be like without her. People can move from relative stability to suicidal within hours," said Jensen, a Chaska family physician. "It's hard to calibrate it into a tight, nifty little 20-second sound bite, but it's a big issue if a woman finds herself pregnant and it's not planned, it's not expected ... and she needs help."
Minnesota Democrats are seizing on the opportunity to create a clear contrast with Republican candidates on the issue of abortion up and down the ballot this fall, particularly in the governor's race. In a challenging midterm environment for Democrats, they see abortion as an issue that could motivate the base and independent women voters in the suburbs.
Abortions immediately halted in neighboring states such as Wisconsin and North Dakota after the ruling was released, but access to abortion is constitutionally protected in Minnesota through a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling known as Doe v. Gomez.
Walz and abortion-rights advocates said Republicans have a path to reverse those protections if they win control of the governor's office and the legislative branch in November. A Republican-led Legislature could bypass the governor and pass a constitutional amendment asking voters to ban abortions in the state, they said. A Republican administration could sign an abortion ban into law or appoint conservative justices to the state Supreme Court who could undo the precedent set in Doe v. Gomez.
"We cannot allow the Republican ticket to turn Minnesota from a safe harbor for abortion access to one of the most extreme anti-choice states in the entire country," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, adding that she fears marriage equality and access to contraception are "next on the chopping block" for conservative justices. "We cannot go backwards. This choice is very, very clear, and as long as we are in the governor's office, we won't."
Changing the Minnesota Supreme Court could take years, given that Democrats have appointed five of the seven justices. But Walz said three of Minnesota's current Supreme Court justices are in their mid-to-late 60s, meaning they're close to hitting the state's 70-year-old mandatory retirement age for judges.
Jensen said he wants to provide more access to contraceptives, family planning and universal adoption support. As a doctor, he said he has prescribed birth control many times over the years.
He has also openly questioned whether Walz is comfortable with abortions in the final month of pregnancy, trying to frame the governor as extreme on the issue. Walz said he does not support abortions that late, nor do providers in the state perform the procedure at that point in a woman's pregnancy.
Democrats will keep the issue front and center during the campaign, and they say there's already evidence Minnesotans are engaged. Donations flooded into Walz's campaign after a draft ruling of the Supreme Court decision was leaked in May, and several of his tweets promising to protect abortion access have gotten tens of millions of engagements in the days since the ruling was released.
"We're seeing this idea that the winds are in [Republicans'] favor and we'll just obstruct everything," Walz said. "This decision changes everything."