Dems hope abortion ruling stops their slide in blue states

·7 min read

President Joe Biden carried Colorado by 14 points in 2020. He blew now-former President Donald Trump out of the water in Washington, winning by nearly 20 points. And after early-cycle chatter about New Mexico being a sleeper swing state, it wasn’t close: Biden 54, Trump 44.

Yet in a political environment as brutal as this year’s for Democrats, even states where the party recently trotted out double-digit victories statewide are anything but safe bets — just look at Virginia, which Biden carried by 10 points in 2020 and which promptly flipped to the GOP in last year’s state elections.

But Friday’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade could halt the GOP’s blue-state advance, Democrats argue, by waking up at least some of the coalition that they rode to blowout wins as recently as two or four years ago. Republicans have this year made campaign overtures in reliably blue states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and New Mexico, all states that have recently given Democrats double-digit margins of victory — and all states where abortion is legal and keeping Roe v. Wade was broadly popular.

“In New Mexico, I think this is going to be responded [to with] a clear call to action by women and men, by voters across that spectrum, who might have been — in the midterms — more lethargic,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a former chair of the Democratic Governors Association who is up for reelection this year

Many are quick to note that the long- or even medium-term political effects of the Supreme Court’s decision remain unclear. And few Democrats are ready to say that the Supreme Court decision alone could flip their dire-looking political fortunes in some of the country’s most hotly contested elections.

But a number of Democrats do think that the return of abortion policy to the states could constrain an expanding battlefield, which has only gotten more favorable to Republicans as the midterms have gotten closer.

“For a long time, many voters didn't believe there was a threat to the status quo — legal access to abortion,” said Marshall Cohen, the political director of the DGA. “Even in bluer states where there are protections in state law, Republican candidates’ extremism is uniquely off-putting to a broad swath of voters, not just Democrats, but independents, and moderate Republicans as well.”

Democrats immediately went on offense following the decision on Friday, broadly blasting Republican candidates as extremists who are out of line with popular opinion. They raised the specter of a nationwide ban — something that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said was “possible” — as a reason why Democratic-leaning voters can’t risk leaving the fold now, even in reliably blue states that have already codified abortion protections into law.

Even before Friday’s ruling, Democrats were using the looming Supreme Court opinion to try to create some distance between themselves and their Republican opponents.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who last won reelection in 2016 by 18 points, went up with a TV ad last week targeting her leading Republican challenger. “What’s at risk voting for Mitch McConnell’s handpicked candidate for Senate, Tiffany Smiley? Everything,” the ad’s narrator intones, saying it would be “risking women’s reproductive health care.”

The same is true in Colorado, where both Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet both could be facing serious Republican challengers in November.

"We can't let the court have the last word. If they do, our daughters will have fewer rights than their mothers and their grandmothers had,” Bennet told POLITICO. “We need to protect a woman's right to make her own health care decisions, regardless of where she lives. We have to elect pro-choice Democrats this November who will protect a woman’s right to choose.”

The urgency of the moment leaves a particularly bitter taste in the mouths of some Colorado Democrats. In 2014, then-Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) relentlessly focused his reelection campaign against Republican challenger Cory Gardner on reproductive rights — so much so that a debate moderator called him “Mark Uterus” on stage.

Udall eventually lost to Gardner, who voted to confirm all three of Trump’s Supreme Court appointments, who in turn created the 5-4 majority to overrule Roe v. Wade on Friday. Democrats are convinced that this year, Udall-style warnings won’t go unheeded.

“Well, I think they’re actually very different years. And I think when the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade is out there, I think it's easy for people to think, ‘Oh, that'll never happen,’” said Morgan Carroll, the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. “But I think for a lot of the electorate, the actual fact of overturning Roe v. Wade is a very dire and alarming wake up call.”

Laura Chapin, a Colorado-based Democratic strategist, pointed to the fact that voters in the state rejected a ban in 2020 on most abortions at 22 weeks or later. The vote against the ballot measure ran ahead of Biden, even carrying seven Trump counties.

“That tells us that we know that voters in the state are strongly pro-abortion rights and that crosses party lines,” said Chapin, who is also a consultant for a Colorado abortion rights group.

Colorado was also the first state in the country to loosen abortion laws, in 1967.

Republicans aren’t buying that, even in the marginal battlegrounds, Friday’s Supreme Court ruling will suddenly clear a path for Democrats to recover ahead of the midterm elections. They argue that while it could be motivating for some Democratic base voters, the economy will still be the deciding issue come November.

“The 2022 midterms will not be decided on abortion, no matter how hard Democrats try to convince themselves it will,” Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, said in a statement. “The persuadable voters that will determine the outcome in competitive governors' races are deeply concerned with the damage being done to their financial security and personal safety by Joe Biden’s and Democrat governors’ failed policies on the economy, crime, and the border.”

And while many Republican candidates support restrictive abortion policies, even in bluer-leaning states, that is not universally true. If Colorado Republican Joe O’Dea wins the Senate primary, that would scramble the typical politics of abortion in that race: O’Dea, a businessman, supports the right to an abortion in the early months of pregnancy.

Some Republican strategists also believe that they can flip the script on Democrats, painting them as extreme for opposing limits to abortion rights.

But Democratic strategists plan on focusing on the issue, both in the outer bounds of the battlegrounds and the most competitive states. And they hope that it can help rebuild part of the coalitions that were key to Biden’s victory in 2020 and their midterm blue wave two years prior — especially in states that were in recent history easy wins for them.

“The hope is that yes, it does stop the gradual shift, especially in the suburbs or among younger white folks, towards Republicans,” said Roshni Nedungadi, a pollster at HIT Strategies, which has done work with abortion rights groups. “Young people really believe in the right to have access to abortions, and did not believe that Roe should have been overturned. These feelings are stronger in blue states.”

And Democrats also say they have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time — still meeting voters’ concerns on other major issues, like inflation or the economy more broadly, while also focusing on a broader reproductive and women’s health agenda that doesn’t revolve solely around abortion.

Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico governor, approvingly quoted the Clintonian mantra of “safe, legal and rare” abortions. She listed off a broader reproductive rights agenda — like access to contraception and sex education — and a stronger social safety net for families as issues that Democrats also need to discuss this year.

And Lujan Grisham also acknowledged that economic factors that made the political environment so favorable for Republicans in the first place could be hard to overcome, even in states that have tilted towards Democrats recently.

“I’d like to have a crystal ball and tell you that certainly this is now the political issue, and it will outweigh the economic issues,” she said. “Hard to say.”

But the party hopes that, at a minimum, it could help reset things in bluer states. “If Republicans are attempting to make gains on Democratic turf,” said Jared Leopold, a former communications director at the DGA, “this Roe ruling is like an electric fence, preventing them from moving forward.”