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Democrats see midterm election boost from abortion ruling leak

Activists riled, but GOP expects Biden, inflation to stay as key issues

Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., left, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., face competitive reelection races this year that could see increased interest following a leaked opinion indicating the Supreme Court will overturn the decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., left, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., face competitive reelection races this year that could see increased interest following a leaked opinion indicating the Supreme Court will overturn the decision that legalized abortion nationwide. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected May 5 | Democrats were hopeful Tuesday that a leaked draft Supreme Court ruling suggesting that five justices support overturning Roe v. Wade will galvanize potential voters ahead of the November midterm elections. 

But Republicans said issues that have dominated the cycle, including inflation and President Joe Biden’s lagging popularity, remained driving factors in the race, while demanding the leaker be caught and punished.

In reaction to the draft ruling, Democratic leaders called for voters to elect candidates who support abortion rights, and advocates sought to rally sympathetic voters. 

“In November, we must elect Democrats who will serve as the last lines of defense against the GOP’s assault on our established and fundamental freedoms,” a joint statement from the party’s national committees focused on the House, Senate, governor’s offices and legislative chambers said. “For voters, the consequences of the election for the future of our country have never been higher.” 

In an example of how fully the party has embraced abortion rights in recent years, candidates in competitive races clogged inboxes with statements decrying the assault on abortion rights. Advocacy groups predicted that the draft ruling could help offset Biden’s approval ratings and the historical disadvantages working against the president’s party trying to hold on to narrow House and Senate majorities. 

“There’s no question that abortion will be on the ballot this year and the stretch between the Supreme Court decision and the November elections will be crucial,” said Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List, a group that supports Democratic women who back abortion rights. “Collectively, we are ready to engage millions of voters and our members around reproductive freedom, a galvanizing issue especially with this unprecedented attack on our fundamental freedoms.”

‘Voters want to know’

The news came ahead of a pre-planned conference Tuesday, hosted by Emily’s List, at which panelists including Jacqueline Ayers, a senior vice president at Planned Parenthood, urged Democratic candidates to talk about the issue.

“If you shy away from it on the campaign trail, if you’re not talking about it and you don’t confront it, voters want to know where you stand,” Ayers said. “Senate candidates who are going to be running this year can create a clear contrast between where they are and where their opponents would be on that bill,” she said, referencing a House-passed bill to codify abortion rights that stalled in the Senate.

Butler said key Senate races in New Hampshire and Nevada featuring Emily’s List-endorsed Sens. Maggie Hassan and Catherine Cortez Masto, respectively, are among campaigns in which a decision to overturn Roe could break through ahead of November.

“The midterms will be the most important election of our lifetimes,” Hassan said at the conference Tuesday. “On the ballot will be a woman’s fundamental right to be a full and equal citizen in our democracy.”

Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat who is running to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr, said during the Emily’s List conference that the leaked decision should serve as a reminder of the “fragility of democracy.” “This is a frightening time in this nation’s existence,” she said. 

The leak Monday came the day after reports that anti-abortion advocates and some Republican lawmakers, anticipating the party taking control of Congress in November, have been circulating potential federal legislation that would ban abortion after six weeks. 

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Mini Timmaraju said during a press call Tuesday that the American people are angry.

“There were spontaneous uprisings all over the country last night. We’ve seen unprecedented interest in our mobilization efforts,” she said, adding, “we think it’s devastating, but it’s also a critical wake up call.”

Public divide is partisan

Polls show that Americans are conflicted about abortion rights, but majorities consistently support access to abortion in certain cases. That finding was replicated in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, which found that 54 percent of Americans think the Roe decision, which gives women a right to an abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb, should be upheld, while 28 percent think it should be overturned. 

But views are sharply divided based on partisan affiliation. The Washington Post-ABC poll found that 75 percent of Democrats think the court should uphold the Roe ruling, while 53 percent of independents and only 36 percent of Republicans say the same thing. 

Responses to the ruling from candidates and political strategists reflected that divide.  

Vulnerable Republicans and candidates in competitive races who issued statements celebrated the potential that the Roe decision could be overturned but quickly turned their focus to condemning the leak. 

“What would otherwise be a great day for our country for the lives of the unborn, has now been marred by an unprecedented and politically motivated leak, obviously intended to intimidate our Supreme Court Justices,” South Carolina GOP Rep. Nancy Mace, who faces a challenger backed by former President Donald Trump in the May 17 primary, said in an email.

Republican strategists predicted that inflation, high prices and other issues that they think play in their favor will be more important to midterm voters than abortion. 

“While it’s certainly gotten more charged overnight, I tend to think that come November, people are still going to be more focused on all those things that make Joe Biden unpopular and have 60 percent of Americans feeling that we’re moving in the wrong direction, and that’s inflation, that’s the border, that’s rising crime,” said Doug Heye, a longtime communications specialist who has crafted messages for the GOP in the House, Senate and at the Republican National Committee. 

Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, circulated a draft memo on how candidates and lawmakers could speak to voters about the draft decision. 

The three-page memo, first reported by Axios, contained sample statements and examples of how Republicans could address the issue in ads. 

“Be the compassionate, consensus-builder on abortion policy. … While people have many different views on abortion policy, Americans are compassionate people who want to welcome every new baby into the world,” it said, adding that Republicans should say that “Joe Biden and the Democrats have extreme and radical views on abortion that are outside of the mainstream of most Americans.”

Focus on the leak

As Republicans on Capitol Hill railed against the leak, many avoided commenting on the impact overturning Roe would have. Some Democrats suggested that was because they knew the public wasn’t on their side.

“They know that this is bad for them,” Molly Murphy, the president of the polling firm Impact Research, said during an Emily’s List panel on the midterms. “They know that this is not an issue they should be talking about. If they thought that this was politically advantageous for them, they would be out waving it.”

The issue also exposed fractures in Democratic primaries. 

‘A political gift’

In Texas, abortion rights groups have spent heavily to support progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, who is facing Rep. Henry Cuellar in a May 24 primary runoff in South Texas. Progressives urged House Democratic leaders who have backed Cuellar, one of the few remaining anti-abortion Democrats in the caucus, to reverse their support after the news. 

“Abortion is on the ballot, and for Cisneros, who needs to rally left-leaning Democrats and moderate females, this is a political gift,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist. “This ups the stakes for reproductive rights at a time when Cisneros needs big turnout to win.” 

Cuellar’s campaign issued a statement saying the leaked draft, if it became the court’s opinion, would divide the country. 

“As a Catholic, I don’t support abortion; however, we cannot have an outright ban,” Cuellar said. “There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.”

Wisconsin state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, a Democrat running in the competitive primary to challenge GOP Ron Johnson, said she joined the crowd outside the Supreme Court on Monday night, collecting personal stories from abortion rights advocates. The next morning, she held a virtual news conference in which she admonished her own party for not acting sooner. 

“We have had the House, we have had the Senate, we have had the White House,” she said at another Emily’s List event Tuesday morning. “Why haven’t we codified this into law?”

Sandhya Raman contributed to this report.

This report was corrected to reflect that Doug Heye worked for the Republican National Committee.

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