Democrats see leaked Supreme Court ruling as potential game changer

In leaked draft decision, Democrats see chance to change the narrative leading into November

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who faces one of the toughest reelection fights of this cycle,  released a digital ad attacking three Republican challengers for their support of abortion bans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who faces one of the toughest reelection fights of this cycle, released a digital ad attacking three Republican challengers for their support of abortion bans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 11, 2022 at 4:59pm

Democrats are hoping a renewed focus on abortion as a political issue may mobilize otherwise reluctant voters in November after a leaked draft showed the Supreme Court may be poised to reverse the legal precedent of Roe v. Wade. 

Even though a show vote on a bill to codify abortion rights fell short, 49-51, in the Senate on Wednesday, Democrats view the issue as a way to put Republicans on the record ahead of the midterms and give their vulnerable members a boost.

Elsewhere, the leaked draft decision has sent Democrats and abortion rights groups into overdrive with fundraising sprees and campaign ads ahead of a midterm cycle expected to be difficult for the party. 

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who faces one of the toughest reelection fights this year,  released a digital ad Monday attacking three Republican challengers for their support of abortion bans.

Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who all are running in competitive races this year, have tweeted their support for abortion rights in recent days and co-sponsored the bill on which Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York called for the vote Wednesday.

“There are women of reproductive age right now who don’t know a world that doesn’t give them a choice,” Warnock told reporters last week. “We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure we protect this constitutional right.” 

While Republicans have largely shied away from releasing new ads related to abortion since the leak, some Democrats have seized on the opportunity to differentiate themselves.

Nida Allam, who is running for retiring Rep. David E. Price’s seat in North Carolina’s 4th District, released an ad Friday in which she says her abortion last year saved her life. 

Sarah Godlewski, a Democrat in a crowded primary hoping to unseat Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., released an ad Thursday showing her standing in front of the Supreme Court criticizing Johnson’s support of overturning Roe and reinstating a 19th century state law banning abortion.

Democrats argue they need to keep hold of Congress in November to safeguard abortion rights, but the reality is there is not much they can do unless they can keep the seats they currently have and flip several more. 

'Realization of the threat'

Abortion has long been more of a motivating issue for Republican voters than Democrats, but there has been a slight shift since the Trump administration. 

Democrats have warned for years that former President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees could overturn abortion rights. While that argument has helped turn out some voters, the effects of the Supreme Court overturning Roe could be greater, said Joshua Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Denver who has written a book about abortion politics. 

“You go from the perception of a threat to the realization of the threat, which of course leads to a more concrete threat to mobilize voters around,” said Wilson. “That increase over time suggests that this is a good issue for Democrats to try to use to mobilize voters.”

Between the Monday night when the opinion leaked and that Thursday night, groups and candidates raised $27.5 million on ActBlue, the small-donor fundraising platform tweeted Friday afternoon.

By comparison, contributions through ActBlue totaled more than $200 million in the week after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, though that occurred in the run-up to a contentious presidential election. 

Democrats point to polls showing a majority of people don’t want abortion banned entirely, but several states would do just that if Roe is overturned, even in cases of rape or incest. 

A Pew Research Center survey, conducted March 7-13 and released Friday found Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say abortion should be legal during the three stages of pregnancy. 

Overall, 61 percent of adults surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases, holding with results of surveys conducted over the past few decades.

Several Republican Senate candidates including J.D. Vance of Ohio, likely Warnock opponent Herschel Walker in Georgia, and Chuck Morse, who is vying to challenge Hassan in New Hampshire, have indicated they do not support exceptions for rape or incest. Only 8 percent of respondents to the Pew survey said they support abortion bans with no exceptions.

But it’s not yet clear whether abortion will outweigh other issues voters care about, like inflation, health care costs or education. 

Election impact

Democrats are defending 14 seats in the Senate this year, including three — in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada — rated Toss-up by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Republicans are fighting to keep 21 seats, with the open seat in Pennsylvania and Johnson's in Wisconsin rated Tilt Republican.

In the House, the GOP needs a net gain of five seats to take the majority. Historically, the party of the president has lost an average of 30 seats in midterm election years over the last century.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott, R-Fla., said the group has conducted polling and focus groups to provide candidates with “ammunition to fight back.” 

The NRSC plans to message on inflation, immigration, crime, and energy issues and pointed to an internal poll showing voters favor Republicans when asked if they would support a Democrat who supports abortion “up until the point of birth,” indicating a line of attack they plan to use against their opponents.

Schumer, meanwhile, pointed to polling indicating deep concerns about the potential overturning of Roe. 

"Republicans cannot hide from the American people and cannot hide their role in bringing Roe to an end," he said Sunday. "They will have to answer to the people this month, this year, and especially this November when American voters go to the polls."

Focus on states

Experts say Democrats would do better to focus their efforts on the states, where legislators have introduced 546 restrictions in 42 states as of May 5, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Thirty-seven restrictions have been enacted in 10 states so far this year. 

“One of the challenges with the Democrats is that they tend not to be as effective as their Republican counterparts in mobilizing in state and local elections, and it's really in the state legislatures where Democrats are going to need to concentrate a lot of effort, because that's where these abortion bans are circulating through,” said Miranda Yaver, a visiting assistant professor of politics at Oberlin College. 

Yaver said the energy around abortion could energize both sides to turn out.

She pointed to Ohio, where she is based, which has a Senate and gubernatorial race this year. If Roe is overturned, the state’s blocked ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy would be allowed to take effect.

“I think it's telling that it's not just in the historically deeply red states of Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, but also in states that have elected Democrats just 10 years ago, and where we have a Democratic senator,” she said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.