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A small state House race in Alabama gives Democrats hope for the November elections

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Alabama, a Democrat won a special election this week to fill a state House seat that's usually held by Republicans. Marilyn Lands campaigned on abortion rights and protecting access to in vitro fertilization in the state. Democrats hope her victory is a sign of things to come nationally this fall. With us to talk all about it is NPR's Ryland Barton. Hey, Ryland.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so tell us more about this race in Alabama.

BARTON: Yeah. So this seat is in the suburbs of Huntsville. It opened up last year after a Republican lawmaker resigned and pleaded guilty to fraud. He had used the address of a home he didn't actually live in to run for the district. And Lands had run for the seat against him in 2022 and lost by seven points. But this time around, she beat her Republican opponent, Teddy Powell, by 25 percentage points. She made reproductive rights the central issue of her campaign. In a TV ad, she shared a story about an abortion she said she got for a nonviable pregnancy 20 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARILYN LANDS: It's shameful that today women have fewer freedoms than I did two decades ago. We need to repeal Alabama's abortion ban and protect women's freedoms.

BARTON: Now, it's important to mention this district is pretty moderate. Donald Trump won the county that includes Huntsville with just 53% of the vote in 2020. And Lands will be joining a very small group of Democrats in the Alabama legislature. There's currently 77 Republicans and 28 Democrats in the House.

CHANG: Outnumbered, but Democrats are seeing this as a big victory with an eye towards other races this year - right? - like elsewhere in the country.

BARTON: Yeah. So the country is still sorting through the political fallout of Roe v. Wade being overturned in 2022. Reproductive rights are literally on the ballot across the country this year. There are efforts in 13 states or so to ask voters to protect abortion in their constitutions. In six states, including relatively conservative ones like Kansas and Kentucky, have already either voted in favor of abortion access or against restricting access in the last couple years.

Democrats argue that election results are finally catching up with voter sentiment. A recent poll of voters across the country showed that 80% say decisions about abortion should be made by women in consultation with their health care providers. That's from KFF, a nonpartisan health policy research organization.

CHANG: It's worth noting that this special election in Alabama, it came a little more than - what? - a month after the Alabama Supreme Court issued its controversial ruling on IVF. And I'm just wondering, how do you think that decision affected the whole political climate in Alabama?

BARTON: Yeah. So remember that ruling said that frozen embryos created through IVF were considered people, and that led to medical providers in the state to halt procedures. Lands made IVF a central part of her campaign. She called on the legislature to fully restore access to it. So since that ruling, we've seen Republican-led legislatures like Alabama's scrambling to protect IVF. Alabama Republican Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill earlier this month providing legal immunity to IVF providers and patients in cases where embryos are destroyed or damaged.

But experts say the new law is ambiguous and leaves open questions around the storage and transportation of embryos. This has been top of mind for people in both parties. This week, one of the big Republican legislative campaign funders called the Republican State Legislative Committee (ph), they're urging candidates to support protections for IVF.

CHANG: Well, how are Republicans in Alabama reacting to this win by Marilyn Lands?

BARTON: Yeah. So the chair of the Alabama Republican Party issued a statement downplaying the election. He blamed the results on low turnout and saying that GOP candidate Teddy Powell took a, quote, "middle-of-the-road strategy" to try and bring in swing voters. Only about 6,000 people voted in the election. The district has about 41,000 registered voters. Meanwhile, Lands said her supporters are forming a PAC called Respect Alabama to recruit and train more Democratic women to run for the state legislature in Alabama.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ryland Barton. Thank you so much, Ryland.

BARTON: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.