WASHINGTON — As Democrats seek to turn the political tide less than one year out from the midterm elections, they are increasingly leaning into the volatile issue of abortion, with the Roe v. Wade decision hanging in the balance at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court heard oral arguments Wednesday to a challenge of a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, which directly confronts the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. Justices could issue a decision on the case next summer, just months before the 2022 elections.
While the economy and coronavirus pandemic are currently at the forefront of voters’ minds, Democrats and their liberal allies say a complete or partial overturning of Roe v. Wade could fundamentally alter the political equation, giving them an opening to energize base voters — especially young women — and make inroads with swing suburban women.
As they wait for the Supreme Court to rule on the Mississippi law, in addition to a separate Texas law that bans most abortion after six weeks and allows private citizens to help enforce it, abortion rights advocates say they need to start sounding the alarm on the potential rollback of Roe v. Wade now to have an impact next November.
“As it becomes more inevitable and less hypothetical, this is going to be a huge force in the midterms,” said Kristin Ford, vice president for communication and research at NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We have work to do to have voters understand the gravity of the situation. Increasingly that will become very, very clear.”
Ford and others on the left say that many of the key voters they are targeting are not fully aware abortion rights are at risk, despite the recent activity at the Supreme Court. Polling and focus groups reveal that abortion ranks relatively low on voters’ priority lists.
In the Virginia governor’s race this fall, Democrat Terry McAuliffe campaigned heavily on the issue before narrowly losing to Republican Glenn Youngkin in a state that President Joe Biden carried by 10 points in 2020. Exit polls showed Youngkin winning among the small subgroup of voters who said abortion was their top concern.
RENEWED ABORTION FOCUS
But progressives say that dynamic will change if and when the Supreme Court issues rulings in the Mississippi and Texas cases, and when political campaigns kick into high gear. They argue public opinion is on their side: a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 60% of Americans think the court should uphold Roe v. Wade, while 27% want the decision overturned.
Three Democratic-aligned groups — Planned Parenthood Action Fund, EMILY’s List, and American Bridge 21st Century — outlined in a polling memo this week how the party could use the issue to its advantage heading into the midterm elections.
The memo stated they should focus on framing the question around whether abortion should remain legal, safe and accessible, educating voters on the threats the Supreme Court cases pose, and attacking Republicans for seeking to ban abortion.
“Democrats have an opportunity to go on offense against Republicans with messaging on abortion,” the memo states. “Defining Democrats and Republicans through the lens of their position on abortion will be key to mobilizing and persuading voters in the midterms that Democrats need to win.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who worked on Biden’s 2020 campaign, said the abortion issue will be especially critical in motivating young women. In a survey Lake helped conduct this fall, more than 70% of women age 18 to 29 nationally said the Texas abortion ban made them more interested in voting next year.
One of the reasons Democrats were not successful in Virginia this year, according to Lake, was due to lower-than-expected turnout with this voting bloc. She said Democrats’ messaging was drowned out by other concerns, such as inflation and education.
Lake said Democrats could form a broader argument around women’s rights and health in the 2022 midterms, coupling their abortion position, for example, with the push for paid parental leave in the social spending bill Congress is currently debating.
“In a different campaign, it could have more impact at a different time when you see a pattern,” Lake said.
Democrats say the issue could be especially pronounced in races for governor, as states could have newfound authority to craft abortion legislation if the Supreme Court rolls back Roe v. Wade. Thirty-six states will hold gubernatorial elections next year.
“If they overturn Roe v. Wade, this instantly crops up into the top two issues people are concerned about heading into 2022 from a voter perspective,” said David Turner, the communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s going to be an issue that’s unavoidable for everyone.”
Democrats acknowledge that the Supreme Court cases will lead to a boost in energy on the other side of the abortion debate too. For instance, Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent anti-abortion group, plans to spend $10 million on ads around the Mississippi case and is already canvassing voters in key battleground states.
The group also hosted a speech in Washington this week from former Vice President Mike Pence, who called on the Supreme Court to “make history” and overturn Roe v. Wade.
“This is the most historic moment for the pro-life movement in two generations,” said Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications at Susan B. Anthony List. “We anticipate that abortion is going to be a huge topic next year.”
But Republican strategists are generally skeptical any change to Roe v. Wade would do much to change a political landscape that’s shaping up as a challenging one for Democrats. They argue that voters on both sides who are motivated by abortion are already likely to vote, and that voters in the middle are more inclined to be swayed by economic issues that affect their daily lives.
“If you talk about issues voters are confronting every day, you’re probably going to win,” said Republican consultant Kristin Davison, who advised Youngkin’s campaign in Virginia. “Abortion hasn’t been in that top three in a long time.”