In Nevada, GOP Senate candidate Adam Laxalt called the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade a “historic victory” for the anti-abortion movement. Nevertheless, he said, it “won’t distract” voters from more important issues like crime and inflation.
In Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson acknowledged in May that things could get a “little messy” for some people who need abortions. But, he said, they can still drive across state lines to Illinois, so abortion wouldn’t be “the big political issue everybody thinks it is” come November.
In Ohio, J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for an open Senate seat, said the country is entering a “new phase of the pro-life movement,” quoted from the Christian Bible, and decried the world view that it is “bad for women to become mothers but liberating for them to work 90 hours a week in a cubicle.” He then turned back to rising fuel costs.
All three are White, Republican men running in competitive U.S. Senate races this year. Their respective states represent the patchwork of new realities facing those trying to access abortion care: Nevada voters approved a referendum in 1990 that protects abortion up to 24 weeks pregnancy, Wisconsin has a ban from the 1800s on the books and its clinics have started referring patients out of state, and Ohio now has a six-week abortion ban in place without exceptions for rape, incest or severe fetal abnormalities.
After the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Laxalt, Johnson and Vance all praised the ruling ending nearly 50 years of federal abortion rights. Then, they pivoted back to talking about other issues, like fuel prices or immigration, and did not focus on the role they could play in further restricting abortion rights.
“In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, it’s pretty clear the Democrats are the ones who want to be talking about abortion, and the Republicans don’t,” said Kyle Kondik with Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a publication that provides nonpartisan political analysis based at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
He said overturning Roe “was something Republicans have pushed for for a long time, and have pushed for through their judicial appointments, and it finally happened but it was not a decision that was broadly supported by the public.” So, Kondik added, it makes sense that GOP candidates prefer to talk about inflation and the economy and other “areas where the president is struggling, frankly.”
A snap poll done by Marist for NPR and PBS NewsHour the weekend after the court’s Dobbs ruling showed that 56 percent of Americans oppose the decision. Votes were more likely to “support congressional candidates who pledge to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade,” the poll found — men by 12 points and women by 18 points. More than 60 percent of women, including 74 percent of suburban women — a coveted battleground voting bloc — are “concerned that the court’s decision is a harbinger of things to come” when it comes to marriage equality and the use of contraception.
A separate survey done the week after the Dobbs ruling by the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Americans disagree with the court’s decision, including 43 percent who “strongly” disapprove. Nearly 70 percent of adults under 30 said they disapprove, with 55 percent saying they strongly disapprove. It’s not just Democrats: Among Republicans or those who lean Republican, women and young people — 36 percent and 43 percent, respectively — were most likely to disapprove of the court’s decision.
The campaigns for Laxalt and Johnson did not respond to a request for comment on Dobbs’ potential impact. Vance’s campaign could not be reached. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) likewise did not respond to a request for comment.
The Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, however, warned that if Republicans retake control of Congress, they will try to pass a national ban. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told USA TODAY they could “certainly legislate in that area.” Sen. Marco Rubio, on the ballot in Florida, has introduced a bill that would prevent businesses from taking tax deductions for reimbursing employees for travel costs to obtain abortions. He has also said the Biden administration should not provide sick leave for federal workers to get abortion care.
“GOP Senate candidates spent months campaigning on overturning Roe v. Wade, they celebrated the Supreme Court decision taking away women’s right to make their own health care decisions — and voters will hold them accountable for it,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spokesperson Nora Keefe told The 19th.
“This election will now determine whether Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are able to go even further: making abortion a crime without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother,” she added.
A president’s party typically struggles in the first midterm elections. In 2010, two years into former President Barack Obama’s first term, Republicans picked up seven Senate seats and 63 seats in the House of Representatives, ending Democratic trifecta control in Washington by taking control of the lower chamber. In 2018, two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, Democrats picked up 43 House seats to end Republican trifecta control. But Republicans also beat four incumbent Democratic senators that year — Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Shortly after the election, three of the lawmakers attributed their losses in part to the bruising confirmation fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. All four voted against his confirmation.
Political strategists called it the “Kavanaugh effect” — Republican voters were motivated by what they saw as Senate Democrats’ efforts to thwart Trump’s promise to remake the judiciary, and it energized the base in a way that led to Republicans performing better in Senate races than history otherwise would have predicted. Kondik said there could be an analogue “Kavanaugh effect” for Democrats this year if voters look past concerns about President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy to support candidates based on concerns about reproductive health care access.
Kavanaugh was one of the conservative justices who voted to overturn Roe after saying during his confirmation process it was “settled law.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, an expert on the women’s electorate who has worked for Biden and his campaign, agreed fear about shrinking abortion access could help address Democrats’ “turnout problem.” “And that’s really, really important because [the GOP] side is very energized, our side is not, they’re very discouraged. … This economy isn’t going to mobilize anybody to vote,” she said.
In addition to Nevada, Wisconsin and Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have competitive Senate races. With the 100-seat Senate evenly split, the outcome of these races will determine which party controls the chamber, where a bill to codify abortion rights has failed twice. Biden, facing criticism for his administration’s muted Dobbs response, has said the best way to protect abortion access is to elect more Democrats to Congress so they can pass federal legislation.
Lake said that she isn’t surprised the Republican candidates in many of these races are being quiet about the Dobbs ruling and pointed to statements they made after a draft of the decision was leaked in early May. Johnson, for example, said then that he did not think that Wisconsin’s 1849 law criminalizing abortion would go into effect — and that if it did, it wouldn’t be for very long. In Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate nominee, said on Twitter after the leak that he looked “forward to supporting pro-life legislation that saves innocent lives in the U.S. Senate.” After the actual decision, he wrote that many considered it controversial, and he respects “those with a different view.”
“While they’re being quiet now, they’re being quiet in part because in the initial days and beforehand, they made a lot of mistakes,” Lake said.
“They’ve already seen backlash, the fact that they want to be quiet about it tells you how well it could work” against them, she added.