WASHINGTON — After decades of fighting against the Roe v. Wade decision, conservatives scored a pair of major victories this month when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a restrictive abortion law in Texas to take effect and set a date to hear arguments about another in Mississippi later this year.
But Republicans aren’t so sure the issue of abortion will be a political winner heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
While it has primarily energized a key slice of the GOP base ever since the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, some Republican operatives say the usual political dynamic could shift now that activists on both sides see the potential for the conservative-controlled Supreme Court to scale back or overturn Roe v. Wade in the middle of an election year.
The Texas and Mississippi cases could serve as a wake-up call to liberals who don’t consistently participate in midterm elections and moderate suburban voters who support abortion rights but haven’t prioritized the issue in the past.
“I think what’s happening right now with the Texas and Mississippi cases is it’s waking up a complacent majority,” said Republican pollster Christine Matthews. “People who generally support a right to a legal abortion with some restrictions but haven’t really thought it was in jeopardy are waking up to the idea that it could be significantly eliminated or virtually eliminated in some cases.”
Recent polling has suggested the Roe v. Wade decision remains popular among the public. National surveys conducted by Fox News, Marquette University, Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University after the Supreme Court decided not to block a Texas law that bans abortions after about six weeks into a pregnancy all showed that less than one-third of Americans favor overturning the landmark 1973 ruling.
The Marquette and Quinnipiac polls also showed that a minority of Americans support banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is what the Texas law is aimed at. Other controversial elements of the Texas law, which allows for private citizens to file lawsuits against abortion providers and offers a financial reward if they are successful, garner even less support in the Monmouth poll. The first such lawsuits were filed last week.
Despite the public’s negative views of the Texas law, lawmakers in several GOP-controlled states, including Florida, are moving forward with bills that mirror it in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.
The issue is likely to only become more prominent in the coming weeks and months, as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Dec. 1 regarding a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Justices are expected to make a ruling on the case at some point next year, as the midterm election campaigns begin in earnest.
“I do think it will be front and center in the elections,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the anti-abortion March for Life Action. “On both sides of the issue, people are very fired up. Whether it goes one way or the other, I don’t know.”
Abortion has not been a leading issue for voters in recent elections. A survey from the Associated Press found that 3% of voters in the 2020 election said abortion was the single most important issue facing the country. Of those voters, 89% supported former President Donald Trump.
But there are signs the issue could be more salient to a wider swath of the electorate in 2022. Following the Supreme Court’s Texas decision earlier this month, a Morning Consult poll showed that the number of Democrats who said issues such as abortion and contraception were their top voting concern doubled from late August. The new Fox News poll also found that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say the issue concerned them.
And a June survey from the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners found that if Roe v. Wade was overturned or severely limited, 59% of women who support abortion rights said they would be more motivated to vote, compared to 35% of anti-abortion women.
“Pro-lifers have been more motivated in the past because the pro-choice side had been the winners in the courts,” said former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman and Virginia Rep. Tom Davis. “This could change that dynamic a little bit.”
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in the Mississippi case, operatives in both parties say issues such as the coronavirus pandemic and the economy are more likely to remain the top concerns for most voters.
But Matthews, the GOP pollster, said a candidate’s position on abortion could still be a disqualifier for some voters, particularly college-educated suburbanites who may have otherwise aligned with Republicans based on their economic policies.
“Abortion could be a deal-breaker,” said Matthews. “It could expand the list of voters who won’t consider voting for a Republican now.”
Republicans Lay Low
Democratic leaders have been far more outspoken about the Supreme Court’s moves than their Republican counterparts, even as anti-abortion activists have celebrated them.
After President Joe Biden pledged a “whole-of-government” response to the Texas law, the Justice Department sued the state, with a hearing scheduled on Oct. 1. Democrats in the House of Representatives passed legislation Friday to protect abortion rights, though it is unlikely to advance through the evenly divided Senate.
On the campaign trail, Democrat Terry McAuliffe has pledged to be a “brick wall” against efforts to roll back abortion rights in this fall’s Virginia governor’s race, which both parties historically look to as a bellwether for the following year’s midterm elections.
McAuiliffe’s campaign has run TV ads featuring footage of his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, telling a voter earlier this year that he can’t go “on offense” with his abortion position because it “won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”
Other prominent Republicans have also tiptoed around the issue, or ignored it all together. For instance, former President Donald Trump, who appointed three conservative Supreme Court justices during his tenure, has not publicly commented on abortion issues since the Texas case.
Some Republicans say their party’s leaders will be more vocal on the issue once the Supreme Court decides the Mississippi case and the future of Roe v. Wade is more clear. For now, they see Democrats as trying to seize on a hot-button issue to energize their core supporters heading into what is traditionally a challenging midterm environment for the party in power.
“Every data point I’ve seen, the intensity, the enthusiasm, the energy is with the Republicans at this point in the race,” said Republican pollster Robert Blizzard. “You need to find something if you’re the Democrats to motivate your base, and this does have the potential to motivate some on the left. But they could be playing with fire a little bit and motivate some on the right as well.”
Some anti-abortion activists say that while they are confident their side will be energized by the looming Supreme Court fight, they are unsure how it will affect the broader political landscape.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said her group is already knocking on voters’ doors in key battleground states such as Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. But Dannenfelser said she hasn’t seen the “tsunami” of opposition from abortion rights advocates that she expected.
“They have everything to lose with Roe v. Wade. Any scaling back is a loss for them,” she said. “There will be a wake-up call, but we’ll see what that call produces.”