LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On the defensive for years in Republican-dominated Kentucky, abortion-rights supporters have gained an election-year advantage at a pivotal time — opening a big fundraising lead ahead of a statewide vote on whether to eliminate the right to abortion in the state's constitution.
The group Protect Kentucky Access has raised nearly $1.5 million this year in leading the campaign against the proposed constitutional amendment placed on the November ballot, according to the group's latest campaign-finance report.
Meanwhile, the anti-abortion group leading the push in support of the ballot measure, Yes For Life, reported raising about $350,000 during the same period.
Heading into the crucial stretch run before the election, the abortion-rights group holds a sizable cash-on-hand advantage in a grassroots campaign likely to be waged precinct by precinct. Protect Kentucky Access had more than $1.2 million in the bank at the end of the reporting period last week, while Yes For Life had $390,105. Cash-on-hand amounts can include donations from last year as well.
The flow of money to both sides is expected to intensify as the high-stakes election draws near.
Abortion-rights supporters in Kentucky are trying to replicate what happened last month in Kansas, another conservative state. Kansas voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled legislature to tighten restrictions or ban abortion outright.
In Kentucky, the fundraising by Protect Kentucky Access reflects "the energy and enthusiasm we're seeing on the ground," said Rachel Sweet, the group's campaign manager.
In capitalizing on its fundraising advantage, the group's strategy is to "meet voters where they are," Sweet said. That means using "every tool at our disposal" to promote its message — including TV ads as well as phone banks and door-to-door canvassing, she said.
Abortion opponents in Kentucky said they were bracing for an influx of money to try to stop the ballot measure but said they remain confident the ballot measure will win voter approval.
David Walls, executive director of The Family Foundation, said abortion opponents had always expected the other side to "spend heavily to support its abortion-on-demand business model."
Addia Wuchner, chair of the Yes for Life Alliance and executive director of Kentucky Right to Life, said the rival abortion-rights group was drawing support from "radical, out-of-state liberal interests."
Approval of the ballot measure would "allow for a reasonable framework of abortion laws in Kentucky that respects the right to life and the health of mothers," Wuchner said.
Sweet said that small-dollar support for Protect Kentucky Access surged after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that overturned the constitutional right to abortion. The group's ranks of volunteers also increased, she said.
The ruling was "a wake-up call for many Americans who, no matter how they may personally feel about abortion, believed that those rights were secure," she said.
Abortion-rights supporters have been on the defensive for years in Kentucky. Since Republicans took total control of the legislature in the 2016 election, lawmakers have enacted a series of laws putting more restrictions on abortion. Many of those measures ended up being challenged in court.
The showdown over the ballot measure comes amid the latest abortion-related court battle.
Kentucky's Supreme Court ruled last month that the state's near-total abortion ban will stay in place while it reviews challenges from the two abortion clinics that remained in the state — both in Louisville. The state's high court set a hearing after the general election.
The state's GOP-led legislature previously enacted a "trigger law" banning nearly all abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Once that occurred, the 2019 trigger law called for the immediate end of almost all abortions. The only exception is when the mother's health is threatened.