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How Brett Kavanaugh and the abortion debate are driving a key Senate race

In Missouri, two opposing campaigns share a focus: how a potential Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh could impact the landmark legal decision Roe v. Wade. Republican candidate for Senate Josh Hawley has made it a central part of his bid against Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, and polling shows them neck and neck. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, campaigning on Kavanaugh.

    We travel to Missouri, where the contentious confirmation of the next Supreme Court justice looms over a competitive U.S. Senate race.

    Lisa Desjardins reports on how one of the most divisive topics in politics has taken center stage in the campaign.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is 8:00 a.m., cold and raining at an abortion clinic outside Saint Louis, Missouri.

  • Woman:

    We just want to let that we're here for you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Twenty-six-year-old Reagan Barklage aims for a soft approach, but she is here to try to intercept women and talk them out of an abortion.

  • Reagan Barklage:

    When women pull up to the driveway, we can go up to the vehicle and just say, hi, how are you? How can we help you? We're here to offer free resources today.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Barklage, who works at Students For Life, an anti- abortion group, is part of a highly motivated community that wants two things, Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and more anti-abortion Republican in the U.S. Senate.

  • Reagan Barklage:

    My faith tells me that I need to do something to end the injustice. So, for me, it's not a religious issue. It's human rights issue.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A few hours later, in downtown Saint Louis, Pamela Merritt is also incredibly motivated in the opposite direction.

  • Pamela Merritt:

    Missouri is teetering on a brink, the likes of which I have never seen. And I have been doing this for a while.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    She organized a conference this weekend for progressive campaign activists after building her own nonprofit to advocate for abortion access.

  • Pamela Merritt:

    The women who are overwhelmingly impacted by restrictions and also by criminalizing are poor women of color and who look just like me and who deserve access to abortion without limits and without restriction.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The two women with counter campaigns share a current focus, how a potential Justice Kavanaugh could impact the future of the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision to legalize abortion, Roe v. Wade.

  • Pamela Merritt:

    It means everything. Right now, despite our best efforts, we are looking at nominee who would cement a five-judge all-male conservative court that is opposed to abortion.

  • Reagan Barklage:

    This Supreme Court nomination is huge, because this will determine history, and it could reverse what's already been done.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You want it overturned?

  • Reagan Barklage:

    I would love to see Roe v. Wade go back to the states and have — go back to where people can vote on it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So would, it seems, Missouri's Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Josh Hawley.

  • Josh Hawley:

    We believe that every person is created in the image of God, that every person has inherent dignity and value, that every person deserves the right to life.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Hawley, the state's attorney general, has called Roe v. Wade one of the most unjust decisions in U.S. history. And he centering part of his campaign against two-terms Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill around the court.

    Recent polling shows Hawley and McCaskill are neck and neck.

  • Josh Hawley:

    The eyes of the nation are on Missouri. We decide which values control the Senate and the Supreme Court. Claire McCaskill wants liberals in charge. That's how she votes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Kavanaugh privately met with McCaskill last month. She has not announced how she will vote.

    She got an overflow crowd in rural Franklin County Saturday, a group of Democrats that want her to vote no on Kavanaugh. The former prosecutor explained the pressures coming from both sides.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    They go, oh, she's trying to figure out what the winner is for her politically. There is none. No matter what I do, there are downsides to it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Missouri has been a hotbed of debate and court action over abortion since the 1970s and a factor in McCaskill's last race six years ago.

    Her opponent then, Republican Todd Akin, sparked outrage when he said.

  • Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo.:

    If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

  • Jo Mannies:

    McCaskill really exploited that, and that helped her have a huge victory that fall.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Saint Louis Public Radio's Jo Mannies has covered Missouri politics for almost four decades. She says this year stands out for the dollar signs.

    Outside groups have poured over $27 million into Missouri, the most of any Senate seat this year. One conservative group launched a statewide bus tour about Kavanaugh. Others are blitzing TV screens.

  • Narrator:

    President Trump has nominated another fair, independent justice. Will Senator McCaskill stand with us or them?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The fight has soured somebody on both Senate candidates.

  • Man:

    I'm not too thrilled about either of them, because not necessarily about them personally, but neither of them are interested in what I'm interested in.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, in others, you see the state's sharp divide.

  • Woman:

    I am a pro-choice woman, so I really don't like the idea that my government can tell me what to do with my body.

  • Woman:

    The fact that I don't believe in abortion is a big deal for me.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    McCaskill also has a geography problem. She needs some moderate voters from the suburbs, and she also needs more liberal voters in the cities to pour out for her.

  • Jo Mannies:

    She has to keep the progressives energized, some of the abortion rights activists in the state who telling her she needs to be a little more out front on the issue.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Like Pamela Merritt.

  • Pamela Merritt:

    On the issue of abortion in general, I think Senator McCaskill is too timid.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Merritt is tapped into key campaign groups, like the abortion rights group NARAL, whose office she visited to plan an upcoming demonstration.

  • Pamela Merritt:

    I'm not a moderate. I'm an unapologetic lefty. And the one — number one reason why I elected — or voted for Claire McCaskill was because the Supreme Court is on the line.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Merritt also lives in the city of Saint Louis, the kind of fiery progressive McCaskill needs to excite. Out in the suburbs, Reagan Barklage is precisely the kind of Republican Josh Hawley needs, conservative and motivated.

  • Reagan Barklage:

    If Josh Hawley were elected, I definitely think that he was confirmed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And I don't think McCaskill will confirm him to the Supreme Court. And their vote matters. This is a battleground state.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And pressure over Kavanaugh is mounting now. The Senate is expected to vote this month, meaning McCaskill will have to make her decision soon and come down on one side of this heated campaign issue.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins in Saint Louis, Missouri.

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