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This is an audio transcript of the FT News Briefing podcast episode: ‘US midterms countdown: abortion on the ballot

Marc Filippino
Good morning from the Financial Times. Today is Thursday, October 13th, and this is your news briefing.

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Today, we’re launching a series about the upcoming US midterm elections. Our first story will take you to Michigan to find out how much the charged issue of abortion rights is shaping races in that state. But first, we’ve got news about the escalating war in Ukraine and how cheap Russian oil is getting more popular. I’m Marc Filippino, and here’s the news you need to start your day.

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There’s more demand for Russian oil these days. Several countries have been importing more Russian oil ever since western sanctions forced Moscow to lower the price. So developing countries in particular need cheaper oil because they’re struggling with inflation and the strong dollar, which makes imports more expensive. China and India have become major customers. Pakistan and Bangladesh have bought more as well. And since May, Sri Lanka has sourced half its fuel from Russia.

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Russia, meanwhile, has been escalating its attacks on Ukraine. This week it sent a barrage of missiles into Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. It was retaliation for Ukraine’s destruction of a key bridge linking Russia with occupied Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin also appointed a hardliner known as General Armageddon to lead his invasion forces, and there’s more talk in Moscow of using tactical nuclear weapons.

Alexander Gabuev
It’s very chilling . . . 

Marc Filippino
That’s Russia analyst Alexander Gabuev.

Alexander Gabuev
I think that the talk in Moscow about this is very, very serious, is much more serious than the public debate in the US. I’m relieved to hear President Biden sounding very serious like he said that this is the closest we got to the Cuban missile crisis.

Marc Filippino
Gabuev says Ukrainians are set on total victory. That means taking back Crimea, which Russia annexed back in 2014.

Alexander Gabuev
The Ukrainian society, I think, is very much set on this course of total victory, which includes restoration of territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. And then there is not enough discussion of what that actually entails. Once this risk by materialise, it will be only a matter of a couple of days where there will be this window of opportunity where Russians are preparing very visibly for a nuclear attack that President Biden can call President Putin or they meet at the G20 summit and then they have a chance to discuss it and frame it that we need to do Khrushchev and Kennedy.

Marc Filippino
Alexander Gabuev is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was speaking with the FT’s Gideon Rachman in this week’s Rachman Review podcast. We have a link to that in our show notes.

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Unidentified man
(Drumroll) Please. Please. Please. Vote! Vote!

Marc Filippino
We’re less than a month out from crucial US midterm elections. The November 8th vote will determine who controls Congress among other things. And starting today and every Thursday leading up to the midterms, the FT News Briefing is going to take you around the country to hear what voters and candidates are thinking on issues ranging from inflation to election denialism. Today, we’re going to the Midwest, to the state of Michigan, to find out how abortion is influencing voters. This year, the US Supreme Court overturned a 50-year-old ruling that protected the right to this medical procedure. And Michigan is one of a handful of states where people will actually get to vote on the issue because their ballots will have a state proposal about abortion. Now, given that Michigan is almost perfectly divided, Democrats and Republicans, the outcome is really a toss-up. Democrats are hoping for more voters like Anna Target here.

Student
I’m kind of leaning Democrat because I feel like I have to vote that way to get, you know, my own reproductive rights. In some other issues I feel like I am more in the middle, but this time it takes a priority for me.

Marc Filippino
The 21-year-old student was speaking to the FT’s James Politi. James was recently in Michigan, and he joins me now. Hey, James.

James Politi
Hi, Marc.

Marc Filippino
So, James, you visited Lansing, that’s Michigan’s capital. And it’s right by Michigan State, which is a huge university. Why did you decide to visit this area in particular?

James Politi
So Michigan is kind of the cauldron of the abortion debate in the midterm elections, and that’s because it’s a classic battleground state. There are a number of pivotal House races, and then there’s actually a kind of referendum within the state to enshrine abortion protections into the state constitution.

Marc Filippino
Wow. So a lot on the line for Michigan when it comes to abortion. How are Democrats campaigning on this issue?

James Politi
So I spoke to a state lawmaker, named Sarah Anthony. We met at a coffee shop called Strange Matter and it’s in a progressive neighbourhood of Lansing. And Sarah Anthony, who’s African-American, said that for a long time, progressive politicians, especially in tight races, couldn’t talk openly about abortion. They had to tiptoe around the issue just because it was so sensitive.

Sarah Anthony
I think for everyone running for office that it’s no longer acceptable to toe the line, to be vague.

James Politi
She described a meeting she had with voters in a rural majority white community that’s in the district she’s hoping to represent as state senator.

Sarah Anthony
 . . . In which we expected, you know, 10, 15 people to show up, to listen to my stump speech became a 50 to 60-person event in a backyard. And literally every single person in individual conversations looked at me and said, where are you on abortion? But as soon as I said, I am pro-choice and unapologetic about it, said, sign me up.

Marc Filippino
James, can you tell us a little bit more about the state ballot measure that Michiganders are voting on when it comes to abortion?

James Politi
So advocates petitioned and got it on the ballot after Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade, which provides the constitutional right to abortion in the United States. If the measure is actually rejected, Michigan would revert back to a 1931 law that’s still on the books but hasn’t been enforced for half a century. That would ban all abortion with virtually no exception.

Elissa Slotkin
So this state is really ban versus Roe. What I have found is that women especially just are not OK with a total ban. It just doesn’t work with reality.

James Politi
That’s Elissa Slotkin. She’s the Democrat who represents the area in the US House of Representatives. I met her at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, which is on the south side of Lansing.

[SOUNDS OF PEOPLE WORSHIPPING IN A CHURCH]

James Politi
It’s a predominantly African-American church. African-Americans are, you know, part of this loyal Democratic base. But Slotkin says that due to abortion, in part, there are two other groups of people that may also swing her way.

Elissa Slotkin
Our Michigan State students signing up to vote often for the first time because of this issue, because they know it’s going to be on the ballot now. And then secondly, Republican women, particularly in the rural counties around Lansing, who identify as Republican, identify as pro-life, who are the ones who have no other option if they get pregnant, who can never sneak away for five days, and who live in a, in an area where their medical care may not be what they need if they start to have a terrible miscarriage or haemorrhage.

Marc Filippino
So, James, did you talk to any Republicans about how they feel about the abortion issue?

James Politi
I contacted Tom Barrett’s campaign. He’s a Elissa Slotkin’s opponent, Republican opponent. And they declined to talk to me, as did Tudor Dixon campaign. She’s the Republican candidate for governor in the state. But Tom Barrett did change the wording on his website about abortion, and he was asked about it during a debate against Slotkin on local TV.

Tom Barrett during a TV debate
Michigan voters are going to have their, their chance to voice their opinion on this.

Unidentified man during a TV debate
Right.

Tom Barrett during a TV debate
I am someone who’s pro-life, and that’s a deeply held, sincere position that I have. It is one that is, you know, based on a firm moral recognition that life is important and life is important to defend.

James Politi
I spoke to some Republican strategists and political experts in the state who said that they believe that abortion was an important factor in the race, but that in the end, economic issues would be, still be the kind of predominant factor. They are laser focusing on inflation and the economy. And you can hear that in this TV ad from Tom Barrett.

Tom Barrett advertisement
In Joe Biden’s America, families like mine are paying more for groceries . . . 

Marc Filippino
And James, Republicans could be right here. There, there was a poll conducted earlier this month by the non-partisan Marist Institute for Public Opinion, and it shows that the number one issue for American voters is, is actually inflation. Abortion came in second place. James, thanks so much for your time.

James Politi
Thank you.

Marc Filippino
James Politi is the FT’s Washington bureau chief. Next week in our election series, we’re going to go to Virginia to find out how Republicans there are leveraging the inflation issue to win over voters.

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You can read more on all of these stories at FT.com. This has been your daily FT News Briefing. Make sure you check back tomorrow for the latest business news.


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