Activists preparing for midterms with abortion as a key issue

Associated Press/Lynne Sladky

Activists and political candidates in key swing states are preparing for midterm elections that could take place just months after the biggest overhaul to abortion rights the U.S. has seen in almost 50 years.

On Tuesday, several Supreme Court justices expressed sympathy for arguments made by attorneys for the state of Mississippi, which enacted a law barring almost all abortions after 15 weeks, in direct opposition to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that recognized the constitutional right to an abortion up to about 24 weeks. 

If the high court does overturn or limit Roe, critical swing states including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan would be among the dozens where experts say a woman’s ability to get an abortion would be in immediate danger. 

And the now-conservative-leaning Supreme Court is likely to have a decision on the matter by June 2022, five months before the midterm contests. While legislative debates over abortion have for decades taken place with Roe as a backstop, pro-abortion rights activists say the concrete threat the Mississippi case poses to abortion rights will hit close to home for millions of women — and say that’s an argument they plan to make. 

“Once people understand the practical stake, we’re going to see more robust political movements,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D). 

Anti-abortion proponents agree that the Mississippi case poses the greatest challenge to Roe v. Wade, making it a more tangible issue for voters going to the polls.  

“The decision of the court will define the future of the movement for both sides,” said Doreen Denny, senior adviser at the conservative Concerned Women for America.  

“It’s not just a matter of the courts,” Denny continued. “We have three branches of government and certainly the midterms are all about the legislative branch, certainly for Washington, D.C. and of course many governor’s races in the states will be crucial if the court does what we expect it to do which is give the states more of an opportunity to have a say in how they approach this issue.” 

The Susan B. Anthony List, an organization devoted to electing anti-abortion candidates, already has active canvassing operations on the ground in key battleground states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Additionally, the group launched a $10 million overall ad campaign to share their argument on the Mississippi case, known as Dobbs v. Jackson, with Americans.  

“We’re doing everything we can right now to impress upon GOP candidates that they need to come out strong on this issue,” said Prudence Robertson, communications associate with the Susan B. Anthony List. “What’s most effective for them is to expose their opponents and their abortion extremism.”  

Meanwhile, the March for Life, which has been held in Washington every year since Roe v. Wade’s passage, will be held in as many as eight states next year.  

“We expect tremendous growth in 2022,” Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life, said in a statement. “We have been strategizing for and creating our state march program for the past few years. March for Life has inaugurated marches in Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, in addition to partnering with Marches in Illinois, Maryland and Missouri.”  

Democrats and anti-abortion rights activists have already raised the alarm bells after Wednesday’s hearings. In a number of states where Republicans control state legislatures, the possibility of moving on abortion bans and regulations is a real one in the case that Roe v. Wade is overturned.  

Twenty-six states are certain or likely to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned, according to an analysis from the Guttmacher Institute. Twelve states have passed so-called trigger laws, which are designed to go into effect to ban most abortions if Roe is ever overturned. Another eight have abortion bans on the books that became moot when the Supreme Court decided Roe but were never formally rescinded. Those bans would be enforceable again should Roe fall.

“Because of partisan gerrymandering, the person sitting in the governor’s office could be the only person stopping Texas- or Mississippi-style abortion laws from coming to that state,” said Samuel Lau, senior director of advocacy communications at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “I’m thinking of places like Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that currently have hostile state legislatures but have governors who are champions of reproductive health and rights.” 

Michigan, a key state of activists, is preparing for a high-profile gubernatorial race, state House and state Senate races, as well as a number of critical U.S. House races in 2022. 

In 1931, Michigan passed a law that bans abortion except when the mother’s life is in jeopardy. While Roe v. Wade made that law invalid in 1973, the law is still on the books and could go into effect if the decision is reversed. 

“It’s going to be a very scary time in Michigan,” said Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel (D). “I think there’s going to have to be a lot of difficult conversations about how to address this to save as many lives as possible.” 

Republicans control the state Senate and House, but Democrats control the governor’s mansion and administration. However, Nessel expressed optimism in the state’s independent redistricting commission making districts less gerrymandered.  

“There’s no way that anyone’s getting through a Republican primary if they’re pro-choice, but in these competitive districts, I think that will be a defining feature,” she said.  

While many anti-abortion groups are still preparing the game plans and initiatives ahead of 2022, groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood have already began rolling out endorsements in key Senate and House races. 

Additionally, the Democratic Party is working on crafting its messaging on the issue, billing it as a top-of-mind health care issue for voters.  

“Democrats, no matter what you’re running for, need to connect with voters on these issues, the bread and butter issues, and this is health care,” said Kelly Dietrich, the founder and CEO of the National Democratic Training Committee.  

The party was notably successful in 2018 when they flipped the House, strictly focusing on health care as a core campaign issue. The party particularly made gains with suburban women in states like Virginia during the contests. However, many suburban women voters during last month’s gubernatorial elections in the state supported now Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R), who stayed laser focused on the issues surrounding education and the economy.  

“What you saw in Virginia where you saw a lot of these suburban moms that kind of went back to the Republican Party, I don’t think that’s going to happen here, not when abortion has become a felony,” Nessel said. “I just don’t see it happening.” 

But those on the anti-abortion side of the aisle say they see an opportunity with independent voters. 

“If you’re looking at the most important voting bloc in this upcoming election as being independents, radical abortion extremism is not going to play well,” Denny said. “I think the Democrats are going to have to make a decision on how they’re going to approach this issue.” 

Democrats argue that Republican candidates, especially those facing contested races, will be forced to talk about Roe v. Wade, if it is overturned. 

“In the world where Roe is there, you can be a Republican politician who says ‘I don’t believe in abortion, but it’s a settled issue because of Roe,’” Weiser said. “Once Roe is gone, that line disappears.” 

Still, some Democrats say there is a fear that the focus on issues like inflation could end up overshadowing the abortion issue.

“We’re doing and accomplishing a lot of good things but we’re awful at branding and marketing it to the average American,” Dietrich said. “Republicans have a much simpler message that can appeal.”  

Polling on the issue is heavily nuanced, but a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 60 percent of Americans say they believe the Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade, while 27 percent say they think it should be overturned. 

Other polling shows that support for the procedure depends on when during the pregnancy an abortion is taking place. An AP-NORC survey released in June found that 61 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases during the first trimester, but 65 percent say it should be illegal in the second trimester. Another 80 percent said it should be illegal in the third trimester.

Ultimately Democrats and abortion rights proponents predict a ruling against Roe v. Wade will energize their base. Republicans and anti-abortion proponents say that is why their side needs to mobilize now. 

“They’re only going to come out stronger and the GOP needs to rise to the occasion,” Robertson said.  

Tags Abortion debate Abortion in the United States Glenn Youngkin Roe v. Wade
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