WASHINGTON — Suburban women could now tip the balance in the midterm elections that will decide control of Congress after a leaked draft opinion indicated the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Their votes helped determine the winner in the last two presidential contests. With Republicans in position to seize the House and Senate, the race is on to shock into action those with the most at stake on an issue that has become a fiercely contested partisan issue. The fight to win them over and get them to the ballot box will be most heated in the 24 states where bans would take immediate effect.
But both Republican and Democratic strategists say that the country is in uncharted territory on an issue where public policy has been relatively stable since the landmark decision almost four decades ago.
It remains to be seen if it’s a strong enough factor to influence key races and displace inflation as the biggest worry among a slice of the population struggling with the spiraling cost of living and ideologically slotted at the political center.
Even though a large majority of women say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, Democrats will have to convince them that it is more pressing than every other issue boosting Republicans’ odds in November.
President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020 by winning over women outside urban centers and with strong support from them in places like Georgia.
Republicans, who generally cheer the Supreme Court’s decision, had sought to make Biden’s poor approval rating and inflation the top issues for voters. The GOP has also tried to erode Democrats’ advantage among women with issues like school closures, curricula and mask mandates for schoolchildren.
Melita Easters, executive director of Georgia WIN List, which seeks to elect Democratic women who favor abortion rights, said that the court’s decision would dramatically boost turnout among women in the November midterm elections. Democrats currently control both chambers by a razor-thin majority.
“Suburban areas where women have been on the fence and voted either way based on the candidate, this is going to push them to Democrats,” she said.
Biden won suburban women 59% to Trump’s 40%, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 110,000 voters.
Vicky Hausman, co-founder of Forward Majority, which seeks to win Democratic state legislative races, pointed to the Virginia governor’s race last year, where she said a strong focus on protecting abortion rights by Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe boosted turnout but was not enough for him to beat Republican Glenn Youngkin, who focused on education issues.
“In Virginia last year, it was a key issue for Democrats, but not a big enough wedge to win,” she said.
Republicans were already reminding voters on Tuesday that other issues were driving their voters.
“This is an important issue to many people,” said Florida Senator Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “But so is inflation, so is crime, so is the border. People are going to be passionate about this and we ought to be passionate about what we believe in.”
The draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe was published by Politico Monday night, so it’s still too soon to show up in polling, and state laws would not change until the decision is issued, potentially in late June or early July. The high court’s final opinion could also be less dramatic than the draft by Justice Samuel Alito.
But strategists say that the issue is most likely to be a major factor in four states with competitive governor’s races where bans would immediately go into effect this summer if Roe is overturned: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin.
That’s especially true in Georgia, where incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, currently leading in polls, signed the abortion ban into effect in 2019.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed more than two-thirds of Georgia voters wanted Roe v. Wade to remain in place.
A higher turnout among abortion rights supporters in governor’s races could also boost Senate candidates in competitive races in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.
Women tend to hold more liberal positions on abortion than men, but are also more polarized on the issue. A third of all women say abortion should be legal in all cases, while 19% of men hold that position. At the other end, 18% of women say abortion should be illegal in all cases, compared to 13% of men.
Opinions on the 1973 Supreme Court decision have remained largely consistent over the years. A 2021 Gallup poll found 58% opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, a nearly identical numbers to results on the same question in 1989.
But the enthusiasm gap on the issue has grown over the past two decades, with 30% of self-described “pro-life” voters saying they would vote for a candidate only who shares their views on abortion, according to Gallup. Only 19% of voters who favor abortion rights similarly insist that candidates they support hold their views. In 2000, those numbers were roughly equal at 20% or so.
That could change if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
“It could be game-changing. No one expected the language to be this blunt and go this far, and I think they really overstepped,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said.
“The keys to Democratic victory in the fall are winning women by more than you lose men, and having a base as energized as the Republican base. In both of those cases we were falling short, and I think a decision this dramatic could accomplish both of those goals,” Lake said.
But not everyone says that it will be an across-the-board effect.
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who regularly conducts focus groups with suburban women voters, said that while most say they support abortion rights when asked, they rarely volunteer it as a top issue when she asks open-ended questions.
She said it will create an opportunity for Democrats but isn’t convinced it will automatically be a top issue across the country.
That could be influenced by whether Democrats seek to portray Republican abortion bans as outside the mainstream, or if they are pulled into taking more extreme positions of their own, such as calling for adding justices to the Supreme Court, she argued.
“A lot of it depends on how well Democrats prosecute the case,” she said.
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