On a lazy-hazy Thursday evening earlier this month, more than 100 people turned up at the Hennepin County Library near Ridgedale to discuss an issue that evidently has enough political magnetism to pull them off their patios.
The issue? Abortion — specifically, how to keep it safe and legal after the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Among the speakers was Dr. Kelly Morrison, an OB-GYN physician and former board leader at Planned Parenthood. She's also two-term state Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven. And — more's the point — she's candidate Kelly Morrison, vying this year for a longtime-Republican state Senate seat in west-suburban District 45.
Searching for a bellwether legislative district in which to discern the vote-producing potential of the abortion issue in this fall's election? I'm here to recommend District 45, being vacated this year by three-term Sen. David Osmek.
As Morrison puts it, District 45 is "the very definition of a purple tossup district." Her pre-redistricting state House district constitutes roughly half of the new Senate district. In both 2018 and 2020, she won by fewer than 320 votes.
The new Senate district's map is dominated by Lake Minnetonka. Its electorate is dominated by financially comfortable, well-educated people who, once upon a time, reliably voted Republican.
That voting habit has been broken in recent years. Morrison's House district went for the Democratic candidate for president in both 2020 and 2016.
But those outcomes might be deemed anti-Donald Trump, not a permanent drift to the Dems. West-suburban Biden and Clinton voters might be ready to shift back into the GOP fold. So goes one strain of analysis this year, fueled by numbers of two kinds: President Joe Biden's dismal approval ratings and the price-per-gallon digits displayed in big lights at every gas station.
Morrison concedes that possibility. She knows her district's recently swingy voters as if they were family — because they are. "They were all Republicans," she says of her clan, an Old Family that reaches back to Dorilus Morrison, the first mayor of Minneapolis.
But the good turnout at the July 7 library meeting at which Morrison spoke suggests that a different narrative is at least plausible. It's that the abortion issue — and maybe the gun issue, too — that vexed DFL candidates in parts of Minnesota for decades could now work in the DFL's favor where it counts. That would be in suburban swing districts — the ones likely to determine which party controls the Legislature.
For the past 10 years, much of District 45 was District 33, where Osmek won a third term handily in 2020. But redistricting removed some of the old district's staunchest Republican precincts, swapping them for parts of purple Minnetonka.
History (my favorite!) says that this stretch of suburbia has long favored the protection of abortion rights. One of Osmek's predecessors was Independent-Republican state Sen. George Pillsbury, who in 1971 — two years before Roe — sponsored a bill to make physician-performed abortion legal in Minnesota.
Pillsbury, who died in 2012, related in his and my 2011 book "The Pillsburys of Minnesota" that abortion foes in his own party repeatedly tried to punish him for that move. But "all they did was make me more interested in the topic," he told me.
Much the same might be said for how Morrison has responded to Roe's reversal as she campaigns against GOP newcomer Kathleen Fowke, a realtor from Tonka Bay. Not that Morrison has ever shied away from the issue. She is a founder of the Legislature's Reproductive Freedom Caucus and a sponsor of a bill that would put the right to abortion into state statutes.
"Abortion is about economic justice, racial justice, human justice," Morrison said in a recent interview. "It's an essential element of reproductive health care."
On that point, she speaks as a doctor who through more than 20 years of practice has seen a lot of reproductive vagaries, including childbirth by a 12-year-old who was raped by her father. Such experiences have steeled her for a full-throated campaign debate — one she believes District 45 voters want this year.
"Women are mad about this," Morrison said. "They're bringing it up at the door. They're upset, afraid, angry. Women who would never consider an abortion themselves, or don't think they'd ever need one, still want it to be legal. A lot of men agree."
But will abortion still be politically potent enough to pull voters to the polls in November? No soothsayer can be sure. But I expect that between now and November, disturbing news about the real-life harm caused by abortion bans in other states will just keep coming. And so will energized abortion rights defenders like Morrison.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.