With the looming possibility of the Supreme Court gutting Roe v. Wade, the future of reproductive rights in America is poised to become a central and potentially defining issue in the upcoming midterm elections.
The high court is expected to deliver its ruling on a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks next summer, as campaign season kicks into high gear. At a hearing this week, the bench’s conservative supermajority signaled its intent to uphold the law, going against decades of precedent and likely introducing a volatile new variable in electoral politics.
Democratic campaign organizations up and down the ballot, along with allied abortion rights groups, are now ramping up efforts to channel the anger and anguish of pro-choice voters and drive them to the polls. On the federal level, Senate Democrats are stressing the importance of maintaining their majority in order to confirm a new justice in the event President Joe Biden has the opportunity fill a vacated seat. In the states, leading Democrats are warning that Republican victories in legislative and gubernatorial races will lead to another burst of efforts to outlaw or severely curtail abortion rights, in line with the hundreds of restrictions that have been enacted in the last decade — this time without constitutional barriers to slow or stop them.
The need for Democrats to manage resources between federal and state races could create some uncomfortable conversations over the coming months.
“The federal government certainly is not going to come save any of us,” said Heather Williams, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “We’re seeing swift action to do things like protect abortion rights, protect voting rights, to ensure that our government is looking out for people happens right at the state level. And folks need to get involved there.”
That, she told CNN, meant Democrats needed to be more strategic in where and how they spend. “It’s very easy to look at the shining star that is federal elections,” Williams said. “They get all the press, they get the attention. But the truth is, while those lights are shining there, the work is actually getting done in the states.”
Republicans have over the last few decades placed more of an emphasis on building power in the states, putting Democrats at a disadvantage they are still struggling to overcome. Republican Governors Association spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez told CNN that GOP candidates next year will have messages tailored to their electorates — and warned that Democratic attempts to nationalize the issue could have diminishing returns.
“If national Democrats are going to make abortion their driving issue going into next year, they’ve already lost the Kansas governor’s race,” Rodriguez said. “It won’t help them in states where it’s not viewed as favorably as they think it is.”
‘I haven’t seen energy like that in a very long time’
Abortion rights have strong support in a variety of national polling. An ABC News/Washington Post survey from last month found that 60% of Americans say Roe v. Wade should be upheld. Only 27% said it should be overturned. But that advantage, consistent through the years, has not always been reflected at the ballot, as the fervor of abortion rights opponents has outstripped that of its supporters.
Democrats now are banking on a backlash fueled in large part by voters who back abortion rights, or are at least passively support a right to choose, but had not considered it a top issue in recent years due to the protections granted by Roe v. Wade.
“We must defend a Democratic Senate majority with a power to confirm or reject Supreme Court Justices,” said Jazmin Vargas, spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “At the end of the day, these Supreme Court Justices make these decisions, and so we’re going to make this issue salient by reminding voters of the importance of electing a Democratic Senate.”
Endangered Democratic incumbents like New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan are seeking to reset the stakes of their races, which could determine control of the split chamber and either open up or further dim options for Democrats after the court hands down its decision.
“My potential opponents support dramatically restricting a woman’s liberty by infringing upon her right to make her own health care decisions,” Hassan told CNN in a statement, “and I will not be shy about contrasting my record of protecting reproductive rights with their support for policies that take away women’s liberty.”
Wisconsin state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who is running in the Democratic Senate primary, told CNN she began to see a clear upswing in activism around abortion rights after the Supreme Court allowed the Texas law to go into effect pending potential challenges.
“When we saw the Texas ruling a few months ago, there were reproductive justice marches across the state,” Godlewski said. “And I haven’t seen energy like that in a very long time, where women were organizing in places that you don’t often see on issues like this.”
But she also expressed disappointment over the lack of action by Democrats in Washington. Like her top primary rival, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Godlewski has pushed for Senate Democrats to ditch the 60-vote filibuster and take legislative action to protect abortion rights.
“I’m really frustrated with my own party, to be honest, because we have the House, we have the Senate and we have the White House and we haven’t codified Roe as law,” she said. “And we’re allowing this to continue to hang by a shoestring. This issue continues to be an afterthought or an extra credit project.”
Chris Hartline, the top spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it was too early to say whether the court’s eventual ruling — given the range of options available to the justices — will change the broader dynamics of the campaign. But he also cast doubt on Democrats’ ability, no matter what comes down, to translate it into a potent political tool.
“Democrats always try to make elections about abortion and it never really seems to work. And we know with the issues that they have in terms of the political environment right now, they were going to try to find something to juice their base,” Hartline said. “And abortion seems like it might be it. That’s what they’re going to try. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful.”
‘The Democratic Party can’t just hope that voter outrage is going to save them’
Leading abortion rights groups and some leading progressives are also concerned that Democratic voters disillusioned by internal clashes and stalled legislative efforts by the party’s majorities on Capitol Hill could blunt an electoral backlash against Republicans.
“Could we see a giant electoral backlash against Republicans? Yes, I think so. But the Democratic Party can’t just hope that voter outrage is going to save them,” Nelini Stamp, the director of partnerships and strategy for the Working Families Party, told CNN.
Stamp also warned Democrats not to underestimate the possibility that conservative, anti-abortion voters, will go to the polls to reward Republicans as they push for new restrictions in the aftermath of the court’s ruling.
“This has been a 40-year Republican promise to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Stamp said. “So they’re also going to have people who are motivated and say, ‘Y’all got the job done.’ And what do we have?”
Asked how Planned Parenthood Action Fund will motivate pro-choice voters who turned out in 2018 and 2020 yet feel that their vote made little difference in the fight to protect reproductive rights, Sam Lau, a PPAF spokesman, acknowledged their exasperation, but pointed to recent Democratic gubernatorial wins that put pro-choice governors in positions to protect the right to abortion.
“If not for a governor who believed in reproductive freedom, those states would be looking to pass bills as radical as what we’ve seen in Texas and Mississippi,” Lau said. “We are at a turning point right now, and it’s clear that we can no longer rely on the courts to protect our rights.”
Two of the highest profile 2022 gubernatorial races will take place in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Democratic Govs. Gretchen Whitmer and Tony Evers, respectively, are seeking re-election in states with Republican-held legislatures. On Friday, Evers tweeted out a picture of him at a desk, surrounded by a room of women, putting pen to paper.
“I just vetoed five bills that would restrict access to reproductive healthcare in Wisconsin,” he wrote, adding: “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again today: as long as I’m governor, I will veto any legislation that turns back the clock on reproductive rights in this state — and that’s a promise.”
Christina Amestoy, a senior spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association, said she expected a campaign conducted largely in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision to overturn or gut Roe would make it more difficult for Republican candidates to hedge or attempt to avoid the issue, as Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin did this past year.
“Voters deserve to know where all the candidates stand,” Amestoy said. “I think that (the court’s decision) eliminates or prevents Republican candidates from hiding behind Roe v. Wade as a mechanism to not have to answer on the campaign trail, and only show their true anti-choice colors once I get into office.”