Minnesota’s new law establishing a fundamental right to an abortion — signed by Gov. Tim Walz at the Capitol on Tuesday — would not have passed the DFL-controlled House just one year ago.
That’s because Democrats’ narrow 70-64 majority included a handful of DFLers from more rural areas of the state who did not share the party’s view on abortion access. Meanwhile, Republicans controlled the Senate.
The makeup of both the House and Senate changed after the November election, however. Democrats gained significant ground in the Twin Cities suburbs, allowing the DFL to not only flip the Senate but win another 70-64 majority in the House made up, this time, of lawmakers who favor abortion rights.
At a news conference celebrating passage of the Protect Reproductive Options Act, or PRO Act, Walz said the Legislature had its “first pro-choice majority in state history,” marking a new era where Democratic coalitions are more ideologically aligned on the issue of abortion — and happen to include far fewer rural legislators.
Democrats used to win more in rural areas but have lost many districts since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Headed into the 2022 election, House DFLers were again faced with losing ground, defending several critical seats in Greater Minnesota that could have decided control of the chamber.
Four DFL representatives had supported bills to limit or regulate abortion access in the past: Gene Pelowski of Winona, Mary Murphy of Hermantown, Julie Sandstede of Hibbing and Paul Marquart of Dilworth.
Murphy and Sandstede ended up losing to Republicans in November, and Democrats also failed to win Marquart’s old seat (he did not run for reelection and is now Walz’s commissioner of the Department of Revenue). Only Pelowski hung on.
But those losses in Greater Minnesota didn’t cost the DFL its House majority. The party won enough suburban districts to offset their losses, and gained a House majority that would eventually vote to codify abortion rights established by a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling known as Doe v. Gomez. The DFL won its Senate majority by winning swing districts in Greater Minnesota and the metro suburbs.
On Tuesday, Hortman told reporters that lawmakers “couldn’t take this step enshrining this freedom in Minnesota statute without having the new majority we have in the House and the majority we have in the Senate.”
She said the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade played a significant role in winning districts where more voters support abortion rights. “I think that voters saw that this wasn’t just a talking point, Republicans were actually serious about taking away this right that Americans had enjoyed for 50 years,” Hortman said.
There were also DFLers that represent rural areas who voted for the PRO Act, including Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora, Sen. Rob Kupec of Moorhead and Sen. Grant Hauschild of Hermantown. (Moorhead and Hermantown may not be rural but those large Senate districts include swaths of voters in rural areas.) All three legislators won in hotly contested swing districts.
Democrats from regional centers across Greater Minnesota like Sen. Jen McEwen of Duluth were also instrumental in passing the bill. McEwen was the prime sponsor of the measure in the Senate.
Republicans unanimously opposed the PRO Act, saying it was the most extreme version of a bill cementing abortion rights and arguing Democrats should support at least some limits on the procedure. But since Pelowski was the only DFLer in the House or Senate to vote against the PRO Act, the measure passed the Legislature.
By contrast, in 2011, the Republican-led Legislature passed a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation that was vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton. The measure received five DFL votes in the state Senate and 13 DFL votes in the House, most coming from Greater Minnesota legislators.
On Tuesday, the White House praised Minnesota’s new abortion law in a statement issued by press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “Americans overwhelmingly support a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions,” she said. President Biden’s own views on abortion have evolved over the years.
Pelowski said abortion is one issue that has caused the DFL to lose seats in Greater Minnesota, though not the only reason. And the Winona Democrat said he hasn’t been ostracized by Democrats at the Capitol for his views. Pelowski said opposition to abortion is a personal value that transcends his party preference.
Asked about what he thought of the PRO Act, Pelowski said “the only way to answer that will be the next election.”
“If (voters) are for it, there won’t be any backlash,” Pelowski said. “If they’re against it we’ll certainly know, district by district.”
MinnPost Washington D.C. reporter Ana Radelat contributed to this report.