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Jared Polis, center left, speaks next to Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains CEO Vicki Cowart, center right, at a roundtable in Denver in August. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In front of a pink banner emblazoned with Planned Parenthood logos, Jared Polis blasted his Republican opponent for opposing abortion and nominating a lieutenant governor who supports personhood.

A moment later, he added an exclamation point about the Republican candidate for governor: “If Walker Stapleton was elected, mortality for women would likely go up under these policies he’s advocating.”

The bold assertions from a campaign event in August — offered without evidence and quickly refuted by Stapleton’s camp — firmly made the issue of abortion part of the governor’s race from the beginning.

And it signaled that Democrats, once again, were prepared to put the issue front-and-center — even though the tactic proved controversial and ultimately unsuccessful in the 2014 election.

The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh provided the backdrop and the specter that the conservative court could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision and push the issue to the states.

“This is a more real threat than ever before,” Polis said. “Coloradans’ reproductive health care is very much on the ballot this election.”

Democrats and abortion rights advocates see the issue as a defining one in Colorado — and one that can help them win elections in a state with an even partisan divide but a strong majority that support legal abortions.

MORE: How Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton compare on the issues in the Colorado governor’s race

The issue of abortion is defining difference between candidates in key races

The dynamic is evident in numerous races across the 2018 ballot.

In the governor’s race, Polis, a five-term Boulder congressman, made clear at the Planned Parenthood event and multiple debates that he does not support any restriction on abortions.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned or undermined, Polis said he would lead an effort to put language in state law to protect the right to an abortion in Colorado.

Walker Stapleton, the Republican running for Colorado governor, speaks at the Pro15 candidate debates in Weld County on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Jacob Paul, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Stapleton, the two-term state treasurer, believes life begins at conception, a position he said is informed by his faith, and made clear he would be a “pro-life governor.” On Roe, he has said it is “the law of the land — we’ll see what happens in the future.” But Lang Sias, his running mate, does not support personhood as Democrats suggested, the campaign said.

In the 6th Congressional District, Democrats hit Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman with mailers that said he opposed a woman’s right to choose, even in cases of rape or incest — a position he has since retracted. NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado even put an organizer in Coffman’s district to help boost support for Democrat Jason Crow, the first-time challenger.

And in key legislative races, abortion is a topic Democratic groups are using against Republicans, highlighting the views of at least two candidates in Jefferson County who support policies that would ban abortion and certain types of birth control.

The Colorado Campaign for Life, a conservative anti-abortion group, hit back in one of the races, calling the Democratic candidate “abortion industry approved.”

A Democratic super PAC, Coloradans for Fairness, sent this mailer attacking Republican state Senate candidate Tony Sanchez in Jefferson County.

The Democratic Party and like-minded organizations are using the issue to rally votes for their preferred candidates in canvassing and phone calls to voters.

“Our reach is a lot bigger this year,” said Karen Middleton, the NARAL Colorado executive director.

Democratic Party draws a line when it comes to abortion as an issue

The emphasis on abortion belies an internal debate among Democrats about how to view the issue as a party.

In late July, outside the Radisson Hotel in Aurora, it came into view. That’s where Democrats for Life of America hosted its inaugural convention under the theme, “I want my party back.” The convention drew anti-abortion speakers, some of whom were Democrats, and made the point that not all party members agree on this issue.

“There no longer seems to be room for those with centrist views on social issues,” said Justin Giboney, an Atlanta-based political strategist and Democratic national delegate, to a conference room with a couple dozen people. The party, he continued, moved from “safe, legal and rare” as an acceptable standard to “celebrate (abortion) as social good.”

ProgressNow Colorado’s Fawn Bolak speaks at a protest outside the Democrats for Life of American conference July 21, 2018 in Aurora (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Outside the hotel, the liberal group ProgressNow Colorado organized a protest featuring abortion rights activists and Democratic lawmakers. State Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, made clear that people with anti-abortion views do not belong in the Democratic Party. “If you are pro-life, fine — be pro-life. But don’t do that under the Democratic flag,” he told the leader of the Democrats for Life state chapter.

Adam Dunstone, a Democratic strategist in Colorado, doesn’t like the idea of exorcising people from the party because of their views on abortion. “I don’t believe that excluding pro-life Democrats is the right way to go,” he said in an interview. “I believe there is a very huge difference between a pro-life Democrat and a pro-life Republican who every day is trying to figure out a way to legislate taking a woman’s right away to choose.”

VOTER GUIDE 2018: Resources, explainers, latest news and more

From midterm to midterm, abortion messaging shifted in tone

Dunstone knows the political benefits and pitfalls when abortion becomes a campaign issue. He served as campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s re-election bid in 2014.

Udall’s first television commercial focused on abortion, attacking Republican rival Cory Gardner on the issue. The campaign stayed the course for the entire campaign, taking abortion ads off the air only three times to criticize Gardner on other topics.

The strategy helped Udall among Democrats, but not among all swing voters or the media, where critics hammered the candidate for the obsessive messaging, which was only amplified by the discussion surrounding a personhood ballot measure the same year.

In his 2014 reelection campaign, Democrat Mark Udall focused his TV ads on the issue of abortion but the strategy generated controversy. (Screenshot)

“It’s the only thing that kept us in the game,” Dunstone said. “It’s always been a powerful issue here in Colorado, and you always have these right-wingers attacking it and trying to take those basic rights away.”

The issue is not the reason Udall lost the race, he maintains, pointing to an unpopular president and a strong Republican year. And he said the party is right to use the message in the 2018 campaign. “We can’t be intimidated as a party, as Democrats, to be scared to talk about the issues that are under assault 24-7 by the Republicans in this country,” he said.

The so-called “war on women” playbook from 2014 sounds different this year.

Except for Polis’ inflammatory remark — the one about his Republican rival’s policies leading to the death of more women — the party has shifted to a more simple message on abortion.

“When I talk about it, I talk about it in terms of trusting women,” said state Rep. Faith Winter, a Democratic state Senate candidate in a key battleground district. “I trust women to make decisions about their body with their family and health care provider.”

It taps into the libertarian leanings in the West and the notion that government shouldn’t wade into personal decisions. But the national political environment still drove home the urgency for those who cared most about it.

The Polis campaign for governor didn’t run a single TV ad on abortion. At the Planned Parenthood event, Polis positioned the need for abortion access as a part of health care. And the biggest difference: The campaign didn’t make it the prime issue in the campaign.

The Democratic Party and abortion rights organizations also adjusted their tactics in 2018. The party sent mailers on abortion only to a select population, rather than blasting it in a TV ad. And NARAL made a concerted effort to boost its membership base to better target its message and turn out its supporters.

“This time we are being smart about just trying to talk to those who care about it, and in a way that makes sense to a broad group of voters,” said Middleton, a former Democratic lawmaker now leading the NARAL effort.

Moving forward, liberals look for a political generational change

The two women behind the protest outside the Democrats for Life conference earlier this year are looking past the 2018 election when it comes to shifting the discussion about abortion.

Fawn Bolak and Alex Ferencz at ProgressNow Colorado Education, a prominent liberal group in Colorado, are leading a new effort called Keep Abortion Safe to destigmatize the procedure and the conversation surrounding it.

“You say the word abortion and people have a visceral reaction,” Ferencz said in an interview. “And we are trying to change that. … People are very comfortable saying they are pro-life and saying it very loudly. And people are not comfortable saying they are pro-choice loudly. So we are trying to change the conversation.”

The project is aimed at millennials and reaching populations outside the typical political targets, including rural and religious communities. And it is banishing the “safe, legal and rare” label because they said it makes abortion seem shameful and isolating.

Even though the effort is more about issue education, the electoral component is obvious. The project is developing messages to encourage conversations about abortion — ones that are designed to guide politicians and translate into action at the ballot box in 2020.

By doing this, Bolak said, “we are hoping it will eventually become something that mobilizes young people around voting around this issue — to insert abortion access and abortion rights within the litmus test of who they want in their political candidates.”

Staff writers Jesse Paul and Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

    John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.