Md. Democrats emphasize abortion rights in bid to flip state senate seat

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correction

An earlier version of this article misstated the policy Democrat Dawn Gile called “wonderful.” It was a $4 billion-a-year education overhaul, not a paid family leave program. This version has been corrected.

ARNOLD, Md. — While door-knocking in this GOP-leaning suburb north of Annapolis, Republican Del. Sid Saab’s conversation with a Libertarian couple turned into the one he’d rather not have. Again.

“Are you pro-life?” a mother of three asked him, her 9-month-old daughter on her hip.

It was a question Maryland’s Democratic Senate Caucus has spent at least $500,000 — more than in any other statehouse race in Maryland — trying to ensure Saab answers.

He replied with the truth: “Yes.”

“Okay, that’s important to me,” she said, her husband nodding. At this house, he found agreement. But for all the attack ads painting his candidacy as a blockade to progress on abortion rights, he can’t help but explain why he thinks his antiabortion stance shouldn’t matter: there is little a Republican in a legislature with a Democratic supermajority can even do on the issue.

“WARNING,” blares one mailer against him, “Maryland’s State Senate is One Vote Away From Radically Restricting A Woman’s Right To Choose … MAGA Extremist SID SAAB Could Be That Vote.”

“It’s nothing but a distraction,” he told the Libertarian couple, of abortion.

Nationally, Democrats have hammered the fragility of abortion rights, capitalizing on discontent that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade to turn out midterm voters in what would otherwise be difficult political head winds. But in deep blue Maryland, where abortion rights have been secured in state law for three decades, Democrats have bet big that abortion outrage can still yield political gains.

Saab is the chief target of that effort in the open contest for a once-Republican stronghold that, after several demographic shifts that favor Democrats, the majority party redrew into a toss-up district this year. Maryland’s legislative districts are so heavily gerrymandered, Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers and only a half-dozen Senate races are competitive in any given year.

Saab’s opponent, political newcomer and lawyer Dawn Gile, declared her candidacy before the district was redrawn to be among the competitive ones, and before the Senate Democratic Caucus zeroed in on Anne Arundel County’s District 33 and Saab’s record on abortion in the House of Delegates.

A businessman and father of three who emigrated from Lebanon at 19, Saab says he benefited from this country’s economic mobility and wants to give back. He calls the abortion ads fearmongering, an attempt to vilify anyone with a ‘R’ by their name on the ballot.

He’s “pro-life” if you have to put a label on it, he explained to the couple, but his primary issues are mental health access and constituent service, and he casts himself as a pragmatist above all else.

“Instead of fighting over things we can’t change, let’s talk about what matters,” he said, saying the abortion debate has been overtaken by extreme points of view. “Most people are closer together on this issue than you think.”

The Libertarians promised him their votes.

A gerrymander and a new line of attack

When Gile filed to run for the District 33 Senate seat as a Democrat in the summer of 2021, the youngest of her three daughters was an infant and the incumbent Republican senator had been representing the area in some fashion for nearly 20 years. A veteran Democratic lawmaker and friend estimated her chances of winning at 5 percent.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Maryland, but the Broadneck Peninsula and Crofton area had been a reliably Republican region for decades. The last time a Democrat represented this district in the Maryland Senate was 1999. But Gile, who also helped lead an organization to help fellow military spouses, saw her neighborhood changing and thought their voice in government should reflect that.

She had been upset that at the time, Maryland had not passed paid family leave and other policies that benefited women, and she thought incumbent Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel), a Catholic and conservative in his 70s, was out of step with the young families she knew who preferred Democrats’ approach to these issues.

Gile called everyone she could think of for advice on running a campaign, then asked each of those people for three more recommendations. She signed up for an online candidacy school. She filed for office and began knocking on doors for hours at a time in the summer heat, introducing herself to people in the district last year, before Saab filed to challenge Reilly for the GOP nomination to effect the term-limits that Saab believes in, and before Reilly said he’d retire and leave the seat open.

Democratic power brokers, including Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), took notice of her campaign and started helping. “She’s someone that resonates as common sense, practical,” Ferguson said, calling Gile “a phenomenal candidate” who “has demonstrated a willingness to work.”

Democrats soon presided over a statewide redistricting effort that shifted the 33rd, taking out Republican-leaning precincts and adding Democratic ones, so the district that gave President Biden 52 percent of vote in 2020 now had an electorate that would have given him 59 percent of the vote.

Then, this summer, Gile said, her door-knocking conversations started to change after the nearly 50-year-old Roe precedent fell. Widespread outrage prompted protests and activism across the country. States started rolling back abortion access. Voters started asking her about abortion rights, which she said she supports, and Democrats made District 33 their top offensive target.

“For a lot of people, it’s the only issue they’re voting on,” she said.

As the state’s party machine poured resources and scores of political mail pieces into the race, the tenor shifted too. Republicans accused Gile of hating popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. (She says she does not.) Another attack ad said she finds taxes on the middle class “wonderful.” (She used the word to describe an education overhaul that costs $4 billion per year.) Another one accused her of supporting polluters. (A company she once represented as an attorney had an unrelated environmental matter.)

Saab, meanwhile, filed a $2 million defamation suit against Gile over attack ads the Democratic caucus sent out. His Oct. 12 suit alleges the mailers paint him in a false light and darkened his face to make him look sinister. He said other campaign mailers unfairly linked him to a Medicaid fraud case and an unrelated sexual harassment case at two businesses that he’s associated with but does not control. One mailer said he wanted to dismantle lifesaving systems like 911. (He voted against a fee increase that expanded an ongoing modernization effort, which he’d previously voted for.) Another said he “wrote a law” removing all exceptions for rape and incest. (The failed bill he co-sponsored banned all late-term abortions.)

The lawsuit is currently scheduled for mediation.

In between houses in a hilly neighborhood where the Libertarian couple lived, Saab said in an interview the abortion mailers saying he’s the tipping point vote to restrict access really grate on him.

“Abortion law is set in Maryland. They’re only talking about it as a way to distract from crime and the economy,” Saab said, pointing out that there are only 15 Republicans in the Maryland Senate.

“We’re 15. They’re 32. How is that one vote?” he said. “Now they’ve switched it from ‘abortion’ to ‘reproductive health,’ as if I’m against reproductive health.”

During his two terms in the House of Delegates, Saab was on the House and Government Operations Committee that hears abortion legislation, which until this spring had not made it out of committee in 30 years. He voted against the two bills the Democrats advanced. One expanded access to abortion by allowing nurse midwives and other qualified non-physicians to perform abortions. (He said that was unsafe for women.) The other, which failed to advance in the Senate, would have asked voters whether to enshrine abortion rights in the Maryland Constitution. (He said that was an unnecessary political stunt.)

Over the years, Saab co-sponsored several bills that would require new mandatory data reporting on abortion; limit the types of abortions that can be done; require fetal heartbeat detection and fine doctors who don’t do it; and dictate what doctors must say to patients.

He co-sponsored, for example, a failed bill backed by antiabortion activists called the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act” three times (in 2016, 2017 and 2019), which would have curtailed access to the procedure after 20 weeks. Another bill, co-sponsored in 2019, the “Woman’s Right to Know Act,” called for a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, required signed consent that the patient was notified that Medicaid pays for prenatal care and that fathers can be required to pay child support. The act, which never got a committee vote, requires both an ultrasound of the fetus and that the images are displayed in the pregnant person’s line of sight, though the proposed law made clear the patient and physician cannot be penalized if the patient is “averting her eyes.”

At the end of the Libertarians’ driveway, after they went back inside, Saab continued to have the conversation he didn’t want to have.

“I don’t think all people who are pro-choice want people to have abortion as birth control,” he said in an interview. So when does he think abortion should not be allowed?

“I don’t think it’s a fair question because I don’t think it’s a black-and-white issue,” Saab said. He said he considers it a moral issue between a person and God. But the government should still have some role in limiting it, which is why he backed the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act.”

“Do you really want a fetus to feel pain?” he asked rhetorically, before pointing out he has empathy for people with difficult or medically risky pregnancies. “I’m not a woman. I’m not a doctor.”

Abortion fearmongering, he said, is a symptom of what’s wrong with modern politics. There’s more to agree on about abortion than not, he said, but there’s a reductivism to political messaging.

“Politics and campaigns become about nothing but hope and fear. ‘I’m going to give you hope, and my opponent is going to take away what you want.’ I don’t think campaigns should be like that. We all have so much more in common.”

The questions he wants to answer? “Ask me something that can change your life. Ask me something where I can make your life better.”

He recounted how another woman, a few days earlier, asked if he was a Republican and then slammed the door in his face.

“You’ve discounted me as a human being just because I have an ‘R’ near my name,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, he gets emails that quiz him on his positions, and they feel like a bait for a negative campaign mailer. A recent one, he said, asked “do you believe that contraceptives should be given out on college campuses?”

“I mean, why should the taxpayers pay for that?” Saab said. “You want contraceptives, go get them.”

A few moments later, Kathy Waisman-Busch, a Democrat, crossed Saab’s path, walking her dogs. Saab tried to hand her a campaign mailer. She heard he was a Republican and declined.

“Just because you’re a Democrat, it doesn’t mean we don’t have much in common,” Saab hollered after her.

“Oh, no,” she yelled over her shoulder as she marched up a hill. “We don’t.”

She turned the corner and looked him up on her phone, fuming when she saw he’s voted against expanding abortion access.

She views abortion rights as fundamental and Republicans as trying to erode them, which she finds offensive.

“It’s about a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body. There is black and white,” she said. “We’ve come so far, and we could go in the wrong direction so quickly.”

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