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Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., is hoping for strong voter turnout after Roe leak

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Abortion rights have shot to the top of an important U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire. The Democratic incumbent is hoping for strong turnout from her base now that a leaked draft opinion shows the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to upend Roe v. Wade. WBUR's Anthony Brooks reports.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: Top Democrats gathered at Planned Parenthood in Concord recently to sound the alarm about the draft opinion, among them Senator Maggie Hassan, who faces a tough reelection fight. Republicans have identified her seat as one of the keys in their effort to retake the Senate. Hassan says protecting abortion rights is now a central issue in her campaign.

MAGGIE HASSAN: We cannot let politicians, whether they be in Washington or in Concord, take away a woman's freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSAN DELEMUS: Shame on you. You're killing babies.

BROOKS: Passions are running high. Just a few days ago, Republican State Representative Susan DeLemus confronted abortion rights demonstrators outside the state capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DELEMUS: You're a murderer. You're a murderer. You're a murderer. Shame on you.

BROOKS: Although New Hampshire's Republican governor, Chris Sununu, says he's pro-choice, the Republican legislature just defeated an effort to codify Roe into state law. And it imposed new restrictions, including banning most abortions after 24 weeks and requiring anyone seeking one to get an ultrasound. Senator Hassan warns that if Roe falls, abortion access could further erode in New Hampshire.

HASSAN: I think people couldn't quite believe that it would actually happen. And now that it's here, they are outraged.

BROOKS: Across the country, Democrats hope the abortion debate will help them retain control of Congress at a time when President Biden's popularity has sunk and inflation has soared. Senator Hassan's Republican opponents favor tougher limits on abortions. One of them is Kevin Smith, who used to lead a Christian advocacy group. Smith is avowedly anti-abortion and supports the leaked draft decision.

KEVIN SMITH: And so I am comfortable with the issue being returned to the states and with there being reasonable restrictions put in place.

BROOKS: Smith says Democrats like Maggie Hassan are raising the alarm about abortion to distract voters from the real issue.

K SMITH: Which is the economy, whether it's the prices at the pump, inflation everywhere you go, 401k's. Stocks are tanking.

BROOKS: But Senator Hassan insists that access to abortion is also a key concern. She points out that Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't rule out pursuing a nationwide abortion ban.

HASSAN: Elections matter. Granite staters know it. And I think this is an issue that they will vote on.

BROOKS: Opponents of abortion say the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade is energizing them as well. Jason Hennessey, president of New Hampshire Right to Life, welcomes the draft opinion and the attention it's brought to the abortion debate.

JASON HENNESSEY: I guess it gives us a much better opportunity to get our message out. We're happy about that, and we hope more people will see the unborn as people who deserve some sort of rights.

BROOKS: Polling suggests that New Hampshire voters care more about economic issues than hot-button social issues such as abortion. That's according to Andy Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Smith also says a solid majority of New Hampshire voters want to keep abortion legal. But he says it's just too soon to know who the issue will help the most.

ANDY SMITH: My view is it probably motivates Democrats more than Republicans simply because anger is a greater motivating force than cheering your party on.

BROOKS: What is certain is that voters will be hearing a lot about abortion as the nation braces for a likely post-Roe world. For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BLACKSHAW'S "TRANSIENT LIFE IN TWILIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.