The Washington Post

GOP bets Roe ruling won’t sway midterms

Strategist­s, candidates say polls show abortion not a top issue for voters

- BY MIKE DEBONIS AND JOSH DAWSEY

One week after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would eliminate the constituti­onal right to abortion, Republican candidates and strategist­s are increasing­ly confident that such a decision would not seriously harm the GOP’S chances of regaining House and Senate majorities come November, as Democrats have suggested it might.

That belief is rooted in reams of polling, nearly all of it conducted before the leak, showing that economic challenges, particular­ly runaway inflation, are by far the most powerful force motivating voters this year, followed by crime and immigratio­n — issues where Republican­s believe they will have an enduring advantage. And, so far, they see scant evidence that reproducti­ve rights are set to dislodge those priorities, given the often-muted reaction in states that have already moved to restrict abortion rights.

“Right now, it’s unknown territory for both sides,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mcconnell (R-KY.) said in an interview last week. “I don’t think it’s going to override inflation, crime, open borders, school frustratio­ns and all the other things that seem to be driving the president’s numbers into the tank.”

Republican candidates are likely to stick to a playbook that many debuted last week, after Politico first published Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s draft opinion striking down Roe: downplay, divert and dodge — refocusing public attention on what they believe will be more potent issues.

“If you come in here with the sky-is-falling argument, I would look around North Carolina and say it hasn’t,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who won election in 2014 after supporting a law requiring pregnant people to get ultrasound­s before an abortion.

Tillis is not on the ballot this year, but the state’s other Senate seat is, as are dozens of legislativ­e seats. The likely Democratic Sen

ate nominee, former state Supreme Court chief justice Cheri Beasley, has moved to make abortion rights a centerpiec­e of her campaign, while the leading Republican­s — Rep. Ted Budd, former governor Pat Mccrory and former congressma­n Mark Walker — have all stood by their longstandi­ng antiaborti­on views.

While Democrats will seek to make abortion an issue, it will ultimately fail to break through, Tillis said. “It’s just like great Democrat strategist­s said many years ago: It’s about the economy, stupid, and that’s what people are going to be voting on.”

That stands in sharp contrast to what Democratic leaders are saying publicly, pointing to a potential Roe reversal as a midterm game changer. Party leaders are heralding the threat of not only state bans on abortion but a possible federal ban passed in Congress to motivate pro-abortion-rights voters to get to the polls and elect Democrats.

“Senate Republican­s will no longer be able to hide from the horror they’ve unleashed upon women in America,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday. “After spending years packing our courts with right-wing judges . . . the time has come for Republican­s — this new MAGA Republican Party — to answer for their actions.”

Early public-opinion polling shows little evidence of a massive swing against Republican­s based on the impending threat to Roe. A CNN survey taken in the immediate aftermath of the leak showed that Americans favored keeping Roe intact by roughly 2 to 1, yet Republican­s still enjoyed a sevenpoint advantage over Democrats when voters were asked about their midterm preference­s — a margin that would easily swing both chambers to the GOP.

Democrats insist that will change if the draft ruling becomes official and once candidates and groups start spending their massive campaign war chests on advertisin­g that highlights the threat to reproducti­ve rights. And top party leaders believe that the issue will have special resonance in some of the midterm elections’ top battlegrou­nds.

“There’s certain states that have even stronger support for Roe v. Wade,” said Sen. Gary Peters (DMich.), citing New Hampshire, Nevada and Arizona as places where party research has showed particular salience for abortion rights. “And there’s a very clear contrast between where our candidates are . . . in those states and the Republican candidates, [who] have taken, for the most part, very extreme views.”

In New Hampshire, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) moved immediatel­y to put abortion rights at the center of her reelection campaign. In a May 3 speech to Emily’s List — a political action committee that helps elect Democratic female candidates who favor abortion rights — delivered just hours after Politico published Alito’s draft, she cast the election as “a fight not just to defend reproducti­ve health care but a woman’s right to control her own destiny.”

“It’s a fight we must win,” she said.

Even in a state defined by its “Live Free or Die” approach to personal liberty, though, Republican candidates are betting that the issue simply will not be on the top of voters’ minds. A week after the draft leaked, the leading Republican candidates in the race — all men who describe themselves as “pro-life” — have each moved to defuse the issue by declaring it moot in New Hampshire, whose Republican legislatur­e and governor enacted a law last year that banned abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy except to save the life of the mother and also instituted an ultrasound requiremen­t.

“There has been outrage over that, along with extremists in Concord defunding Planned Parenthood, and people are very, very concerned,” Hassan said in an interview last week. “And so I will continue to point out to voters that three of my opponents running on the Republican side have already endorsed the Alito draft decision, and that’s of great concern to people in New Hampshire.”

But Dave Carney, a consultant for GOP candidate Chuck Morse, said it is far from clear that the decision, if adopted, would prompt a groundswel­l against Republican­s. He cited millions of dollars of ad spending last year attacking New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who had been considerin­g a run against Hassan, that focused on the abortion legislatio­n. The onslaught, he said, did nothing to dent Sununu’s popularity.

Morse, who serves as president of the state Senate, said in a statement last week that Republican­s “settled the law” in the state with last year’s legislatio­n and that any Supreme Court decision resembling Alito’s “will have no impact on New Hampshire.”

“The opinion leads one to think they’re going to basically say this is for the states to decide, and New Hampshire has decided, and so it’s really not that big a deal,” Carney said. Much more impactful come November, he said, will be the price of oil in a state where 80 percent of residents use it to heat their homes.

A similar balancing act is on display in Nevada, where the leading Republican Senate candidate, former state attorney general Adam Laxalt, released a statement last week saying Alito’s opinion, if adopted, would “constitute an historic victory for the sanctity of life” while also asserting that abortion rights are “currently settled law in our state” — a reference to a 1990 voter referendum that ensured abortion rights up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and that can be undone only through another referendum.

Democrats have signaled that calling the referendum “settled law” is not going to settle much of anything — citing Laxalt’s filing of public briefs as attorney general in support of other states’ much more restrictiv­e laws, among other aspects of his record showing opposition to abortion rights.

The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, said at the Emily’s List conference that “there’s no doubt in my mind” that Republican­s would seek to undermine the 1990 referendum and that Laxalt would “be an automatic vote for legislatio­n punishing women for seeking an abortion.”

But Republican­s say the statelaw backstop gives Laxalt some credibilit­y in claiming that Nevada’s abortion laws are simply not at risk, thus allowing him to quickly pivot to other matters with more proven potency than abortion.

“It’s not registerin­g on issue polls,” said Josh Holmes, a Mcconnell ally whose firm, Cavalry, consults for Laxalt. “I’m looking at them. It’s just not.”

As the impact of the leaked decision has percolated on the campaign trail, Republican­s have chosen their words carefully — out of both concern that the final decision might be watered down and hope that the leak itself might anger some voters.

On Friday, former president Donald Trump talked for nearly an hour and a half at a rally in Pennsylvan­ia, joined by Mehmet Oz, a doctor and TV personalit­y who, like Trump, expressed support for abortion rights before becoming a Republican Senate candidate. On the cusp of a historic antiaborti­on triumph, one that Trump’s judicial appointmen­ts had made possible, the former president said briefly that their party protected “innocent life” — and that the justices were “making a very big decision now.”

Several advisers said Trump was still trying to assess the political ramificati­ons of the decision and whether overturnin­g Roe would be popular. He personally has told advisers that he would support limiting abortions but having “some exceptions,” a person close to him said.

As president, Trump saw rolling back abortion rights as a way to solidify his support among evangelica­l voters.

Party organs are similarly circumspec­t about their messaging around a possible abortion rights rollback. Republican National Committee officials have worked with Trump adviser and strategist Kellyanne Conway and others on the right to talk about messaging a decision such as Alito’s.

Earlier this year, before the draft opinion leaked, Conway conducted a poll for the RNC that looked at various positions on abortion and how the party could win while not committing to banning the procedure entirely. “Engage and enrage,” Conway said in the presentati­on, calling on the party to attack Democrats for what she called liberal positions on abortion.

But her poll showed that most Republican voters did not view it as a top-two issue — only 10 percent said they did, trailing more than 10 other issues.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a memo advising candidates on ways to “combat potential attacks from Democrats” and “call out Democrats for using obsession over abortion to avoid talking about their record.”

Americans support “reasonable restrictio­ns on abortion,” according to the committee’s research. Democrats could be exposed as “angry” and “strident” if Republican­s shifted the discussion to issues like “gender selection abortions,” or how Democrats wanted to nix the Hyde Amendment, which bars public health-care funds from paying for the procedure.

Many Republican­s have stuck to the script, alternatin­g between condemnati­on of the leak and defenses of limits on the period when abortion should be legal. “Only seven countries in the world allow elective abortions after 20 weeks,” tweeted Rep. Lauren Boebert (RColo.), a freshman who has frequently diverted from the leadership’s messaging. “America is one of them, along with China and North Korea. Clear enough for you?”

In the interview last week, McConnell said that while most of his conference was in favor of overturnin­g Roe, he has largely avoided talking about the decision, describing it as a “draft opinion” while also warning that Democrats were at risk of overreachi­ng on the issue.

“We’re going to find out at the end of the year how big an issue this was,” he said.

 ?? JABIN BOTSFORD/THE Washington POST ?? “It’s just like great Democrat strategist­s said many years ago: It’s about the economy, stupid, and that’s what people are going to be voting on,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
JABIN BOTSFORD/THE Washington POST “It’s just like great Democrat strategist­s said many years ago: It’s about the economy, stupid, and that’s what people are going to be voting on,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

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