Could Overturning Roe v. Wade Backfire for Republicans?
By Susan Milligan
Imperiled Democrats have a message for Republicans who have been campaigning for decades on the promise to ban abortion: be careful what you wish for.
The leak of the draft Supreme Court decision vacating the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion has provided besieged Democratic candidates with a universal theme as they head into a daunting midterm election season. From Pennsylvania to Nevada, and Ohio to Florida, Democratic candidates for Senate slammed the decision and castigated GOP opponents who are running on antiabortion platforms.
Democratic gubernatorial and state legislative candidates also seized on the issue, since an undoing of Roe would make states the arbiters of whether or not a woman can terminate a pregnancy.
Republicans, for the most part, sought to soften their rhetoric after decades of hardline antiabortion talk. The National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed a memo encouraging GOP candidates to be “the compassionate consensus builder on abortion policy,” while Republicans lawmakers said the real scandal was the leak itself.
And in a dramatic turnaround, Democrats found themselves on the offensive in America’s political culture wars, casting the GOP as wildly out of touch with public opinion, which shows overwhelming majorities favoring Roe v. Wade, if not abortion access in all circumstances.
“Some of these Republicans are the dog that caught the car,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison said in a conference call with reporters. “Regardless of the state or the (congressional) district, this is going to be a big issue for a lot of folks.
“It’s a slippery slope,” Harrison added, echoing warnings by President Joe Biden that other non-enumerated privacy rights – such as the right to birth control, to same sex marriage and even desegregated schools – would be next.
After years of GOP warning that Americans were losing their liberties – being forced to wear masks, get vaccinated or accept school curricula that included discussions of race or sexuality – it is now Democrats who are waving the freedom flag, decrying book bannings and now the draft court opinion.
“We’re going to make sure people understand that their liberties in this country are under frontal attack,” Harrison said.
Democrats have been “dispirited” in recent months, as Biden’s underwhelming approval ratings, the lingering COVID situation and high inflation and gas prices energized GOP voters while discouraging Democrats from showing up to vote this fall, says University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett.
But the high court decision, if it indeed becomes the formal ruling, “really could be a lightning rod to excite and motivate the Democratic base,” Jewett adds.
Pop-up demonstrations have been happening all around the country since the draft was leaked earlier this week. While antiabortion activists have been showing up at public demonstrations as well, it is the pro-abortion rights forces who have been most active, angrily decrying the apparent loss of a right women have had under the law for nearly a half century.
Abortion rights advocates are planning a nationwide “Bans Off Our Bodies Day of Action” on May 14, with anchor marches in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. Tandem events will be held in other cities, much as the Women’s March did after Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, 2017.
Antiabortion forces are also motivated to vote – but they were already motivated before the draft was released, so the turnout difference is more likely to help Democrats, Jewett says.
Democrats are in grave danger of losing control of the House and the Senate this fall, since they hold narrow majorities and face hospital trends favoring the party out of power in the White House.
Soon after the draft opinion was disclosed, Democratic campaign committees sent out email blasts slamming GOP contenders for Congress, the Senate, governorships and state legislative races for their stances against abortion.
In Ohio, a state that has been moving to the right in the past decade, Democrats hope the bombshell draft decision will help Democratic nominee for Senate Rep. Tim Ryan, who favors abortion rights. Ryan reminded voters that his GOP general election opponent, J.D. Vance, said last September that women should not be allowed to have abortions because the pregnancy is “inconvenient.”
“We need to abolish the filibuster and pass the Women’s Health Protection Act to codify Roe ASAP,” Ryan tweeted.
Some GOP candidates have openly embraced the draft decision, lauding the high court for taking away the right to a procedure they believe is immoral and tantamount to murder. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is taking it a step further, offering legislation to penalize companies in the tax code if the firms fly employees out of sate to get an abortion they cannot legally obtain in their home states.
But others have handled it more delicately.
Republican Adam Laxalt, who hopes to unseat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto as the U.S. senator from Nevada, called the decision “an historic victory for the sanctity of life and the principles of democratic self-determination.”
But his statement also noted that Nevada has enshrined abortion rights in state law, so no matter what the court ultimately decides, “it is settled law in our state.”
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republicans who is not up for re-election, declined to say whether he supports Texas’s strict antiabortion law. “It’s up to the state legislature,” he told reporters.
In some states, the issue could go either – or both – ways. In Pennsylvania, Democrats upset by the draft decision might be more likely to turn out, helping Democrats pick up a seat in the U.S. Senate.
But, also in Pennsylvania, where Republicans control the state legislature, the Democratic governor is the only person standing in the way of severe limit or an outright ban on abortion, should the draft ruling hold, says Jon Delano, a longtime Keystone State political analyst.
“That is going to be a huge issue in the gubernatorial race,” Delano says.
In other states, Democratic governors up for re-election are reminding their voter bases of what’s at stake. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak warned that “an anti-choice governor has the ability to limit reproductive freedom for women in the Silver State,” even though the law now says otherwise, according to an internal memo obtained by NBC News.
In New York, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is on offense, reminding Democratic voters of what’s at stake for them in New York and across the country.
“Abortion is on the ballot now,” Hochul said on MSNBC Thursday. “I believe this is going to energize the base. Republicans are now going to be running scared in states across this nation.”