How Democrats Want to Put Republicans on the Defensive on Abortion

In politics, sometimes you need to lose in order to win.

Wednesday’s planned vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, Senate Democrats’ bill to codify Roe v. Wade, will fail. Democrats are unlikely to persuade any Republicans to cross party lines, and Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, also opposes abortion, in keeping with the politics of a state Donald Trump won by 39 percentage points in 2020.

So why is Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, holding a doomed vote?

It’s what’s known in Washington as a “message vote” or a “show vote.” My colleague Annie Karni puts it plainly in her piece today: The move is meant to force Republicans to take a vote that could hurt them in November. Now that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe, Democrats believe there’s a political opportunity.

Which, of course, there is. Democrats are hoping to anchor Republicans to an impending court decision that is well outside the American mainstream.

They plan to spend the rest of the campaign season telling voters that if they want to protect the right to abortion — let alone contraception and same-sex marriage — they should expand Democrats’ Senate majority. It’s an argument they believe will appeal to suburban college-educated women, a key swing demographic, among others.

Until the leak of the draft opinion on Roe, Democratic strategists I’d spoken with in private had been skeptical that abortion would move many voters in November. That’s changing rapidly.

In the Virginia governor’s race last year, for instance, Glenn Youngkin, the eventual Republican winner, appeared to pay no price for his views on reproductive rights even though Terry McAuliffe’s campaign spent several million dollars on abortion-themed television ads. Back then, many voters just didn’t believe that Republicans would really ban abortion.

At one point, McAuliffe even said he would encourage companies to move their operations to Virginia to escape restrictive abortion laws in states like Texas, a move that caused Youngkin’s campaign to consider running ads condemning those comments.

“Youngkin’s abortion quotes would lose him that election if it were held today, I think,” said Brian Stryker, a Democratic pollster who worked on the Virginia governor’s race. “The court changed all that by making this issue way more real to people.”

Of course, how Democrats try to seize the advantage will matter. They can’t just call this vote on Wednesday, pump out some press releases and expect to carry the day. Execution matters.

Polling shows that abortion rights are popular. But the answers depend heavily on how the questions are worded. The public often shows conflicting impulses: Americans approve of Roe by large margins, but also approve of restrictions that seem to conflict with it.

A Pew Research Center poll taken before the Roe leak is instructive. It found that 19 percent of adults said abortion should always be legal. Just 8 percent said it should always be illegal, with no exceptions. Most Americans are somewhere in between those two poles, though a healthy national majority of about 60 percent say it should be legal in most cases.

Republicans would like to force Democrats into that 19 percent corner. Democrats would like to push Republicans into that 8 percent cul-de-sac. And so would each side’s activist community, even though voters tend to see the issue in shades of gray.

“Voters are not looking for a change in the status quo on either side,” said Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster who advises House and Senate candidates. But, she added, the nuances in the polls reflect the fact that voters struggle to decide when, and under what circumstances, it is appropriate to end a pregnancy.

What is making the abortion issue especially potent now that Roe is likely to be overturned, Murphy said, is that “Republicans now need to defend where their line is.”

Regional distinctions are also important. When you break down public opinion on abortion by state, as Nate Cohn recently did, you find large differences between culturally liberal states like Nevada and New Hampshire, where more than 60 percent of the public says abortion should be mostly legal, and culturally middle-of-the-road Georgia, where that number shrinks to 49 percent.

Another way to gauge the politics of an issue is to ask: Who wants to talk about it, and who doesn’t?

Abortion rights seem like a clear political winner for Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, a Democrat who is defending her seat against several little-known Republican challengers. Hassan did seven interviews the day after Politico published the Roe leak.

The favorite candidate of the state’s G.O.P. establishment is Chuck Morse, a state senator who describes himself as “pro-life.” Morse pushed a ban on late-term abortions last year that did not include exceptions for rape or incest. It also required all women to take an ultrasound exam before terminating a pregnancy.

Morse issued a statement last week highlighting his role in passing legislation that “settled the law in New Hampshire that permits abortions in the first six months.” Through a spokesman, his campaign has said it prefers to talk about the economy, inflation and immigration.

In other key Senate contests, Republican candidates are scrambling to defend or explain their past comments.

In a statement last week, Adam Laxalt, the likely Republican challenger to Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Democrat of Nevada, praised the draft ruling but noted that abortion is already legal in Nevada, “so no matter the court’s ultimate decision on Roe, it is currently settled law in our state.”

“He can’t play it both ways. He’s already come out and said he would overturn it,” Cortez Masto said in a brief interview. “He’s already said it was a ‘historic victory.’”

In Ohio, J.D. Vance, the G.O.P. nominee, has said that women should bring pregnancies to term “even though the circumstances of that child’s birth are somehow inconvenient or a problem to the society,” referring to rape and incest. Vance does, however, support exceptions to spare the life of the pregnant woman.

Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for Senate in Arizona, has said that Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court case that barred state bans on contraception and established the federal right to privacy, was “wrongly decided.”

Masters clarified in a statement that he did not support “any ban on contraception, and that extends to I.U.D.s,” or intrauterine devices, which some abortion opponents view as abortifacients.

Republicans would much rather talk about late-term abortions, even though nearly nine in 10 abortions take place within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.

An interview this month on Fox News with Representative Tim Ryan, Vance’s Democratic opponent in Ohio, offered a telling example of how this could play out.

Pressed twice by the Fox host on whether he supported any limits to abortion, Ryan gave an answer that was faithful to standard Democratic talking points.

“Look, you got to leave it up to the woman,” Ryan said. “You and I sitting here can’t account for all of the different scenarios that a woman, dealing with the complexities of a pregnancy, are going through. How can you and I figure that out?”

The network’s White House reporter, Peter Doocy, later gave a slanted account of Ryan’s answer during a question to Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary. He said that Ryan “does not support any limits on abortion. Is that where the president’s thinking is now?”

The episode was revealing, said Justin Barasky, an adviser to Ryan’s campaign, as an indicator of how Republicans are struggling to adapt to a changed political environment. “They know this issue is a loser for them.”

At issue

Today, President Biden was on the schedule to deliver a speech on inflation. He did that — and then some.

In his remarks, he called inflation his top domestic priority and laid out what he said were two primary causes of the problem: the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But Biden also criticized Republicans’ plans — or, he suggested, their lack thereof — for solving economic challenges.

“Republicans would offer plenty of blame, but not a single solution to actually bring down the energy prices,” he said.

After discussing issues like insulin prices and speeding up the supply chain, Biden accused congressional Republicans of proposing to increase taxes while making working families poorer.

He called out Senator Rick Scott of Florida (though Biden accidentally said Wisconsin), who leads Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, for what the president called Scott’s “ultra-MAGA” economic plan.

That plan, which includes a call to impose income taxes on more than half of Americans who pay none now, has been gleefully highlighted by national Democrats, and even Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, has dismissed the proposal.

Biden sought repeatedly to tie the party to the former president who continues to dominate it, using the phrase “ultra-MAGA” three times and “MAGA” twice more.

“I never expected the ultra-MAGA Republicans, who seem to control the Republican Party now, to have been able to control the Republican Party,” he said.

Instead of criticizing all Republicans, Biden tried to isolate the most extreme members of the party.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said that “it tests much better to say, this is a subset, this is a faction, and you must beware of this faction, you must vote this faction out.”

— Blake & Leah

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