Smith aims to use Planned Parenthood background to her advantage

U.S. Tina Smith and Planned Parenthood officials
U.S. Tina Smith and Planned Parenthood officials stood outside of the federal courthouse in St. Paul Friday to oppose the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Briana Bierschbach | MPR News

Sen. Tina Smith isn't running away from her time working for the nation's largest abortion provider — she's embracing it.

"I am here as a United States senator," the Democrat said Friday, standing in front of the federal courthouse in St. Paul. "But I am also here as a woman who has been a volunteer and an executive at Planned Parenthood."

Smith stood alongside officials and volunteers for Planned Parenthood at a press conference to push back on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's pick to serve on the United States Supreme Court. "The stakes are high," she continued. "President Trump believes he can count on Judge Kavanaugh to be that decisive fifth vote to overturn Roe [v. Wade]."

Smith was an executive for Planned Parenthood in Minnesota and North and South Dakota from 2003 to 2006 before she entered politics. Now she's embracing that role in Washington and in a close election fight with Republican state Sen. Karin Housley.

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The appointment of Kavanaugh in particular has put a "fine point" on issues of women's reproductive rights under Trump, issues that were first raised 18 months ago in the Women's March, Tim Stanley, executive director of Planned Parenthood's election action fund, said.

"The issues of health care and reproductive choice are so hot right now, so in play, so a part of the public conversation," Stanley said. "The public, if they weren't focused on this issue before, I think they are now and are really starting to understand what's at stake in this election."

But Smith's ties to Planned Parenthood are something her opponents think will hurt her in a state where plenty of voters are opposed to abortion and where a majority in the Legislature favors more restrictions.

"Tina Smith is the first senator who has actually worked for an abortion facility. It's not just a position, it's actual direct involvement," said Bill Poehler, a spokesperson for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), the largest organization opposing abortions in the state. "She's not hiding from it, and it's risky on her part to be all in with the abortion industry."

Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions, contraceptives and other health care services to men and women, has 18 clinics in Minnesota and one in South Dakota. The organization said it serves roughly 72,000 patients annually. Smith was the organization's president of external affairs, where she led everything from lobbying and campaign efforts to public policy campaigns.

"Most people in Minnesota deeply respect the work that Planned Parenthood does, and those are the reasons why I never shy away from the work that I believe in, and what I think most Minnesotans believe in," Smith said.

Planned Parenthood conducted a survey in 2016 asking residents across the state if they think government funding for "family planning and contraceptive services like Planned Parenthood" should increase, decrease or stay the same. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said it should increase or stay the same while 29 percent said it should be decreased.

Poehler said MCCL doesn't have recent polling on Minnesotans' views on abortions, but candidates look to the anti-abortion, Republican-controlled Legislature to know where the state's voters stand on the issue.

Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political science professor, said no matter how Smith planned to talk about her work with Planned Parenthood, her Republican opponents were going to make it part of the debate.

"As long as this is going to be an issue, she may as well try to use it to her advantage," Pearson said. "It does make sense for her to lean into this part of her resume and use it to mobilize Democrats. Turnout in midterm elections is typically much lower than it is in presidential elections."

In her campaign, Smith will also be able to benefit from the resources of Planned Parenthood, which announced last week it is launching its largest ever voter contact campaign for a midterm election. The organization's political arm aims to reach about 4.5 million voters before Election Day, more than double the size of its ground game for the last midterm elections.

The national Planned Parenthood Votes political action committee has raised more than $11 million this election cycle and still has $6.4 million in the bank. They've already spent nearly $300,000 supporting Smith in the race. Stanley said they've seen a 200 percent increase in campaign volunteers and an influx in individual donors. Smith's race and the governor's race are their two top priorities for Planned Parenthood in the state this fall.

"We definitely don't see [her work with Planned Parenthood] as a liability, we see that as a strength," he said. "We see signals in that in how she is talking about it and how she is talking about it as an issue, and also in how her opponent is staying away from it."

But Housley, Smith's opponent, said she's not talking about abortion as an issue because she's not hearing about it from voters. She said the top issues for voters this fall is the cost of health care, jobs and the economy.

"It's very clear that she is a single-issue senator and abortion is her single issue," she said. "There are a lot more issues here than Planned Parenthood, but this is what she has chosen to focus on. It's disappointing for Minnesotans."