NEW YORK – Vulnerable Democrats from Nevada to New Hampshire are promising to make abortion a centerpiece of their political strategy heading into the midterm elections, betting that an intense focus on the divisive issue can rally their voters to beat back a red wave and preserve their narrow majorities in Congress.
Strategists in both parties suggest it may not be so easy.
Democrats have been sounding the alarm on abortion rights in nearly every election cycle this century, including last month's stunning defeat in the Virginia governor's race. In most cases, it's Republicans who have shown to be more motivated by the issue.
Still, as the Supreme Court's conservative majority signals a willingness to weaken or reverse the landmark Roe v. Wade precedent, Democrats insist they can convince voters that the threat to women's health is real and present in a way it wasn't before.
“This isn’t crying wolf. This is actually happening," Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is facing a difficult reelection test in Nevada, said in an Associated Press interview. She took to the Senate floor Wednesday and warned, “The reproductive freedom of women everywhere is in jeopardy,” before casting her Republican opponents as “anti-abortion extremists” in the interview.
The new intensity is prompted by the high court's deliberation over a Mississippi law presenting the most serious challenge to abortion rights in decades. In nearly two hours of arguments Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority suggested they may uphold a Mississippi law banning all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and possibly allow states to ban abortion much earlier in pregnancy. Current law allows states to regulate but not ban abortion up until the point of fetal viability, at roughly 24 weeks.
The court’s final ruling is expected in June, just ahead of midterm elections that will decide the balance of power in Congress and in statehouses across the country.
Already braced for a rough year, Democrats have been searching for an issue that can both energize a base deflated by slow progress on various issues in Washington and repair the party's strained relationship with suburban voters, who may be drifting back toward the GOP in the months since former President Donald Trump left office.
Abortion rights could be it, but it's not necessarily a silver bullet, said Democratic pollster Molly Murphy, who recently surveyed voters across several battleground states on the issue.
“It's the question I ask myself,” she said.
Democrats likely will not win on abortion if they simply recycle the arguments that Republicans are trying to roll back abortion rights, Murphy said. To be successful, they must argue that Republicans are spending their time and energy attacking women's reproductive rights at the expense of issues like the economy, the pandemic and health care. She also encouraged Democrats to focus on Republican-backed measures, like one in effect in Texas, that would penalize health care professionals and the women involved in some abortion cases.
Murphy's guidance acknowledged the nuances of public opinion on abortion rights.
A June AP-NORC poll showed 57% of Americans said that in general abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But the same poll showed many Americans question whether a woman should be able to get a legal abortion “for any reason,” and most said abortion after the first trimester should be restricted.
In the second trimester, about a third said abortion should usually — but not always — be illegal, while roughly as many said it should always be illegal. And a majority — 54% — said abortion in the third trimester should always be illegal.
Privately, some Republicans concede that a wave of dramatic new state restrictions on abortion that could follow the court's ruling could change the conversation and disrupt their momentum heading into 2022. Twelve states have “trigger laws” that would immediately ban all or nearly all abortions if Roe is overturned, and other GOP-led states would likely move quickly as well. But Republicans also express confidence in their ability to focus on other issues.
That was the case last month in Virginia's race for governor, where Democrats and their allies invested heavily in trying to tie GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin to a new Republican-backed Texas law that bans most abortions. Democrat Terry McAuliffe's closing message centered on both former President Donald Trump and abortion.
And while Youngkin's campaign privately worried that the abortion focus might hurt him, particularly among suburban women, Youngkin prevailed in part by shifting the conversation toward parents' frustration with local education.
“I didn’t see abortion as a big issue,” said Linda Brooks, who chairs the Virginia Democratic Party's women’s caucus, pointing instead to schools and Trump as the biggest factors in her state's recent elections. “It’s just not on people's' minds.”
Only 6% of Virginia voters called abortion the most important issue facing the state, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate.
In fact, the issue seems more relevant for Republicans. In last year's presidential election, VoteCast found that the 3% of voters who said abortion was the most important issue facing the country voted for Trump over Democrat Joe Biden, 89% to 9%.
A significant portion of the electorate simply doesn't believe that the court will overturn Roe, acknowledged Jenny Lawson, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s vice president of organizing and engagement campaigns. But Lawson said she thinks that could change quickly.
“The court is doing that work for us," Lawson said. “The world has changed. What happened yesterday was earth shaking.”
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, vowed that the party would put “the threat that Republicans pose to women’s health care front and center in Senate campaigns." And vulnerable Senate Democrats in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire leaned into the issue Wednesday and Thursday.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, another vulnerable Democrat on the ballot in 2022, joined a handful of New Hampshire voters protesting Wednesday outside the Supreme Court. In a subsequent interview, she warned that the court was “on the verge of gutting Roe v. Wade.”
“If the Supreme Court won’t protect a woman’s fundamental decision-making rights, and won’t respect a woman’s role as a full and equal citizen in a democracy, it leaves people at the mercy of a state legislature like the one we’re seeing in New Hampshire," Hassan said.
New Hampshire, like states across the West, has a long bipartisan history of supporting abortion rights — even Republican Gov. Chris Sununu describes himself as pro-choice — but the state's Republican-led Legislature has been moving aggressively to enact restrictions in recent months.
In Nevada, a libertarian-leaning Western state, voters passed abortion rights protections in 1990, and any changes to state law would require another ballot initiative. Former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval supported abortion rights while in office, and in 2014 the state party removed an anti-abortion plank from its platform.
But as attorney general, current Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt joined GOP colleagues from other states in court briefs supporting strict abortion limits in Texas and Alabama. Last July, 12 Republican governors and more than 200 Republicans in Congress asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe in legal briefs related to the Mississippi case.
Laxalt said he looks forward to standing “for the rights of the unborn” in the Senate.
“Catherine Cortez Masto and the Democrats are desperate to distract Nevadans from the massive job losses, sky-high inflation and open border anarchy they have presided over," Laxalt said in a statement in response to questions about the latest Supreme Court case. "Hiding behind this issue will not save them from the judgment of Nevada voters.”
AP writers Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, Sam Metz in Carson City, Nevada, and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed.