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Nov. 27, 2021

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Leubsdorf: Key 2022 issue will be abortion

Both parties expect to benefit politically from topic in midterms

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When the Supreme Court rules in the coming months on the Mississippi and Texas laws substantially restricting abortions, it will do more than decide the future of its 1973 ruling legalizing a woman’s right to end her pregnancy.

It will almost certainly plunge the long-simmering issue into the midst of the 2022 midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections at a time both Democrats and Republicans believe it could help them.

One is likely to be wrong. Or, perhaps, each will be right in some places and wrong in others.

Ever since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, abortion rights has been a potent factor in many national and state elections, and it’s an issue in next month’s Virginia governor’s race. As is often the case, the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, favors additional restrictions and the Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, opposes them.

But polls on which party benefits are as complicated as those on the attitude of Americans toward the practice itself.

For example, 2020 television network election exit polls showed a majority of voters favored keeping abortion generally legal. They also showed the proportion regarding the issue as an important factor in their vote was roughly the same among supporters and opponents of abortion rights, about three in five.

Still, Donald Trump’s 2016 promise to name Supreme Court justices opposed to abortion rights — and the fact that by 2020 he had done so — likely helped to maintain his support from religious conservatives, including those wary of his three marriages and other aspects of his private life.

Current attitudes are similarly complicated. A recent Quinnipiac University Poll showed Texans agreed by a 2-to-1 margin with the court’s 1973 ruling legalizing abortions, about the same degree of overall support as has been shown in most national polls.

At the same time, the survey showed strong opposition among Texans to the new law’s provisions allowing private citizens to sue anyone they suspect may have facilitated an illegal abortion.

It didn’t take long after the 1973 decision for the issue to enter the political debate. Interestingly, the first major figure to use it was a rising Republican senator named Bob Dole, facing a close 1974 reelection race in Kansas. In a debate, Dole raised the fact that his Democratic opponent, a gynecologist, had performed abortions. It was seen as a major factor in Dole’s narrow victory.

National Republicans were slow to embrace it. But in their 1980 takeover of the GOP in which religious conservatives played a key role, Ronald Reagan’s forces added planks to the Republican platform that urged reversing Roe v. Wade and appointing federal judges “at all levels of the judiciary” who opposed abortion rights.

Uncertainties

Ever since, it has been a prominent political issue in both national and state elections. And recent legislation makes it likely to become an even greater factor in 2022.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a women’s rights and reproductive rights support organization, 19 states have passed a total of 106 restrictive measures this year, hoping they would pass muster with the reconfigured Supreme Court.

The court has agreed to consider a Mississippi law, which would ban most abortions after 15 weeks. It also stepped into the controversy surrounding the even more restrictive Texas law, allowing it to take effect pending a ruling on its constitutionality.

In this circumstance, there are two great uncertainties: how far the court will go in restricting its 1973 ruling, assuming that is why it took these cases. And which side will benefit politically.

Democrats believe the issue will spur a larger-than-usual turnout of suburban women that will help their candidates in next year’s elections. That sort of turnout was a key factor in the Democrats’ recapture of the U.S. House in 2018 and the presidency in 2020.

Similarly, many Republicans believe it helped to elect Trump in 2016 — and nearly reelected him in 2020 — by generating an outpouring of religious conservatives.

Interestingly, weekly polls by The Economist and YouGov show that the proportion of Democrats who consider abortion an extremely important issue has risen during 2021, while the proportion of Republicans has dropped.

That trend, along with the underlying national support for maintaining most legal abortions, suggests Democrats stand to benefit the most if the court significantly restricts its 1973 ruling.

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