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As It Prepares For War, Planned Parenthood Is Training A Political Army

Planned Parenthood and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton supporters looks to the stage during the National Anthem during a Clinton campaign event at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER
Planned Parenthood and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton supporters looks to the stage during the National Anthem during a Clinton campaign event at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA — For Planned Parenthood, this election season means war. And you can’t win a war without an army.

So Planned Parenthood is building one: An army of pro-choice advocates trained in how to win political campaigns. On Friday, the women’s health organization held its biggest-ever volunteer training event in Pittsburgh, where nearly 1,000 activists from 48 states were taught how to build grassroots political support for reproductive health and abortion rights.

The training is just one part of what Planned Parenthood says will be the most expensive electoral effort in its 100-year history. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards told ThinkProgress that her organization plans to spend at least $20 million to help win key Senate races and the presidency this November. While some of that money will go toward paid media like radio and television ads, a large portion is going toward building a grassroots army that can help elect Hillary Clinton to the White House. (Planned Parenthood endorsed Clinton in January.)

This is a defining moment for our organization when it comes to thinking about how to build our power.

“This was, I believe, the largest volunteer training we’ve ever had in the history of Planned Parenthood,” Richards said on Monday. “They represent one slice of what is an enormous volunteer army that Planned Parenthood is building across the country.”

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“We’ve never done anything like this before,” added Kelley Robinson, who organized the event for Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “This is a defining moment for our organization when it comes to thinking about how to build our power.”

Power is something Planned Parenthood could use. Last year, an anti-abortion sting campaign falsely accused the organization of selling fetal tissue for profit, which led directly to renewed defunding efforts in Congress and, indirectly, to a shooting at one of the organization’s clinics. In the last year, the Republican-led Congress voted to defund Planned Parenthood at least eight times. And while presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump once said the organization did “very good work,” he has since taken a harsher tone against the organization and abortion in general. On Sunday, he said he would nominate pro-life Supreme Court justices, suggesting they might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. He also once suggested punishment for women who receive abortions, a position he later recanted.

This combination of anti-abortion rhetoric in state legislatures, Congress, and the presidential race means Planned Parenthood must build a similarly diverse strategy.

In addition to advertising and social media campaigns, it must have people on the ground, spreading the word about the importance of reproductive healthcare. And the organization can’t just focus on winning the presidency — it has to target down-ticket races as well.

“The importance of taking back [the U.S. Senate] is paramount,” said Deirdre Schifeling, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s executive director. “It’s important to take back the presidency, it’s also equally important to flip the Senate. The [House of Representatives], we think is probably two cycles away. But we can flip the Senate.”

Signs made by Planned Parenthood volunteers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Friday, May 13, 2016. CREDIT: Emily Atkin
Signs made by Planned Parenthood volunteers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Friday, May 13, 2016. CREDIT: Emily Atkin

In terms of the Senate, Schifeling told ThinkProgress that the organization will focus on winning Senate elections in seven states: Nevada, where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s seat is up for grabs; New Hampshire, where Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is seen as vulnerable; Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Colorado. All of those states conveniently double as swing states in the presidential election, Schifeling noted, so Planned Parenthood will focus on recruiting and training volunteers for both contests.

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The strategy of targeting states was on display at Friday’s training, where Schiefling said a plurality of the 1,000 volunteers were from those key states. It wasn’t hard to find examples — 22-year-old volunteer Mohan Seshadri, for example, said his focus will be his home state of Wisconsin, where Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is facing a tough re-election battle against former Sen. Russ Feingold.

I have seen what Republican state legislatures can do to reproductive justice, how they can completely halt and stop it in its tracks.

But while Seshadri told ThinkProgress that he understands the importance of the Senate race, he also said he is most passionate about trying to get pro-choice voices in his state’s legislature and into the governor’s mansion.

“I’m really focused on taking back Wisconsin,” Seshadri said, citing the 20-week abortion ban recently signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker. “I have seen what Republican state legislatures can do to reproductive justice, how they can completely halt and stop it in its tracks.”

Fortunately for Seshadri, Planned Parenthood wants volunteers to be trained in campaigning for statewide legislative and governor’s races, too — specifically because of the upcoming battle over redistricting.

Four years from now, in 2020, many states will redraw their electoral maps. And in most states, whichever political party controls the state legislature will have control over what those maps looks like. After years of Republican-led gerrymandering that has made it easier for Republicans to get elected, Planned Parenthood is hoping that Democrats can have a shot at the drawing board.

Mohan Seshadri, of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, attends the organization’s political training event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Friday, May 13, 2016. CREDIT: Emily Atkin
Mohan Seshadri, of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, attends the organization’s political training event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Friday, May 13, 2016. CREDIT: Emily Atkin

Perhaps most importantly, though, one of the biggest goals of Planned Parenthood’s electoral campaign is to get reproductive rights back into the national political conversation. For a while, the topic seemed to have slipped away — in nine official Democratic presidential debates, not one question was asked about abortion. At the same time, laws restricting women’s access to abortion were being passed in multiple states.

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“We’re puzzled by the lack of discussion around the incredible rolling back of abortion access in this country, and the incredible rolling back of women’s access to reproductive healthcare generally across the country that’s happened over the last five years,” Schiefling said. “It’s been remarkable, and it’s puzzling to us that it’s not more front and center in the debate.”

Richards, however, said she is confident that reproductive healthcare — and access to Planned Parenthood, specifically — will become the deciding factor in races across the country. And she’s counting on old-fashioned door knocking, phone banking, and handing out flyers to do the trick.

“We just believe in grassroots organizing,” Richards said. “At the end of the day, after all the TV ads have been run and the polls have been taken, the single most important thing you can do to get someone to vote is to talk to them face to face.”