Midterm Messaging on Abortion in a Potentially Post-Roe Landscape

Democrats and Republicans strategize on the abortion issue following the unprecedented leaked SCOTUS draft opinion overturning the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally in 1973.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., walks through the U.S. Capitol in Washington May 11. Manchin voted against the Women's Health Protection Act that would have  codified abortion rights at the federal level. The Democratic Party lost the vote, 51-49, in a bid to pin down Republicans on the abortion issue ahead of midterm elections.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., walks through the U.S. Capitol in Washington May 11. Manchin voted against the Women's Health Protection Act that would have codified abortion rights at the federal level. The Democratic Party lost the vote, 51-49, in a bid to pin down Republicans on the abortion issue ahead of midterm elections. (photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON —  Both major political parties are looking at how abortion could factor into the upcoming midterm elections after the unprecedented May 2 leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion indicating a potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion. 

Many prominent pro-abortion Democrats are calling for their base to mobilize around the issue, expecting it to give them a boost. Republican leaders so far have focused more on condemning the leak than on highlighting their party’s pro-life case, but pro-life groups have responded to the news with renewed energy in calling for pro-life voters to focus on state battles — and look at the federal level to key U.S. Senate races to guard against attempts to abolish the filibuster and pass legislation allowing abortion up to birth without limits.

Shortly after the draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito in February, was leaked, President Joe Biden issued a statement that “if the Court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose. And it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November.  At the federal level, we will need more pro-choice Senators and a pro-choice majority in the House to adopt legislation that codifies Roe, which I will work to pass and sign into law.”

Other prominent pro-abortion lawmakers in Congress also emphasized the importance of the midterm elections if Roe is overturned. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Maloney, representing N.Y.-18, tweeted that the issue is “now the central choice in the 2022 election.” In a recent appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the draft opinion “puts an urgency on what is happening in the election. Two — one or two more senators could sweep back the filibuster rule for this purpose. And then a woman would have the right to choose.”

Pelosi’s comments were framed in the context of an impending Senate vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, a piece of legislation that would ban virtually all state restrictions on abortion. The legislation, which earlier was passed by the Democrat-controlled House, failed in the Senate on May 11 by a 51-49 vote, underscoring the fact that Democrats do not have the 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority needed to advance abortion legislation there. Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who voted against the bill, remain unwilling to join their colleagues in abolishing the filibuster with the Democrats’ simple 51-vote majority.


Economic Concerns Paramount

Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told the Register that while the leaked draft might help Democrats “at the margins,” they’re “in a really difficult spot right now,” as “all the prevailing winds say that the Democrats are going to lose handily in the midterms, lose the House and probably the Senate.”

“Most voters aren’t faced with issues surrounding abortion on a consistent basis,” Burge said, adding that “in three or four months a lot of people are going to forget all about Roe v. Wade, but they’re not going to forget the fact that inflation is 10% right now and that milk’s more expensive and gas is more expensive.” In March, economic problems topped the list of issues ranked “most important” to U.S. voters surveyed by Gallup, with 35% naming economic problems as the “most important” facing the country.

And more recent data indicates that the leaking of the draft opinion might provide as much or more of a boost for Republicans as for Democrats. CNN compared polling it had conducted just before the leak to polling conducted just after and found that when it comes to voting enthusiasm in the midterms, “among Democrats, 43% now say they are extremely or very enthusiastic, up 7 points. Among Republicans, it’s 56%, up 9 points. And voters who say overturning Roe would make them ‘happy’ are nearly twice as enthusiastic about voting this fall as those who say such a ruling would leave them ‘angry’ (38% extremely enthusiastic among those happy, 20% among those angry).”

The CNN polling also noted “a small increase since January in the share of Americans who say they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion; that view increased more among Republicans (from 15% in January to 26% now) than among Democrats (24% in January to 29% now).”

Could Democratic voters become more mobilized around the abortion issue if the Supreme Court does officially overturn Roe? Burge thinks the move “could lead to a potential backlash,” depending on “what happens in the states between when a decision is issued in June and whenever voting happens in November. If we start seeing a raft of states basically ban abortion completely, that will keep it top of mind for lots of voters across the country.” 

Burge also referenced the complex beliefs of most Americans on the issue. He cited former President Bill Clinton’s “safe, legal and rare” pronouncement from the 1990s saying he believed “that’s where the median voter is,” where “they’re fine with abortion; they just don’t want to think about it too much; they don’t want it to happen a bunch.”


Majority of Americans Want Restrictions

In fact, recent Pew polling on the issue found that just 19% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all cases with no exceptions, and 8% believed it should be illegal in all cases with no exceptions. The vast majority believed that abortion should be at least somewhat restricted, with 36% saying it should be legal in most cases but with exceptions and 27% saying it should be illegal in most cases with exceptions. 

Gallup polling, last updated in 2018, has shown that support for abortion decreases the later a woman is in pregnancy, with just 28% of Americans backing abortion in the second trimester and 13% of Americans believing abortion should be legal in the third trimester. 

Paul Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College and a Register contributor, told the Register that “if you really look hard at the data, there are just as many really intense pro-lifers as there are pro-choicers.” A 2020 Gallup poll noted “the continuation of a trend seen since 2001, whereby Americans who consider themselves to be pro-life are more likely than those who identify as pro-choice to say abortion is a threshold issue.” The poll found in 2020 that 30% of those who identified as pro-life said they were single-issue voters compared to 19% who were “pro-choice.” 

Mallory Carroll, vice president of communications at the Susan B. Anthony List, which is pouring $72 million into the midterms, told the Register that “voters care about a wide variety of issues, but when it comes to abortion, historically the intensity gap favors pro-life candidates. There are more single-issue voters who are pro-life than single-issue voters who are pro-abortion; and for those people who are in the middle, who are really concerned about inflation and the economy, it’s very off-putting to them to hear Chuck Schumer and leading Democrats talk about ending all pro-life protections.”

Nonetheless, Kengor predicted the intense rhetoric from Democrats on the abortion issue will only increase, citing the “war on women” slogan the Democrats frequently employed during the 2012 election cycle and anticipating that rhetoric on the abortion issue will be similarly amplified for the midterm elections. He pointed out that the initial statement from Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Schumer on the leaked draft opinion said a decision to overturn Roe would be “an abomination, one of the worst and most damaging decisions in modern history.” 


Republican Messaging

Thus far, prominent Republicans primarily have focused their response on condemning the leaking of the opinion, but have also highlighted how overturning Roe would return decision-making on abortion back to the state level with some discussion of a national ban on abortion. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told USA Today regarding a national abortion ban that "if the leaked opinion became the final opinion, legislative bodies — not only at the state level but at the federal level — certainly could legislate in that area," and a debate on a ban was “possible.” He later added that “I’ve clearly stated I will never, never, support smashing the legislative filibuster on this issue or any other.”

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who is the co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, told EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo that if Roe is overturned, “this is a new phase. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning of a national debate on abortion, and for the first time ever, the child will be paramount.”

But other prominent Republicans recently told Politico that they would want to leave abortion law up to the states for a time after Roe is overturned, if that happens as a result of the final Supreme Court decision. “I’m definitely advocating: Let the states handle this,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who is up for reelection this year, told Politico. “Maybe once that process has played itself out, yeah. Maybe there’s a point for federal legislation … a restriction that we probably ought to recognize nationally.” 


Pro-Life Groups Mobilize

Pro-life groups across the country are mobilizing for the midterms with messaging centered around emphasizing the extreme stance of pro-abortion Democrats, advancing pro-life state initiatives, and emphasizing compassion for mothers in a post-Roe world.

Carroll told the Register that the Susan B. Anthony List has been active in nine battleground states, “where we are working to contact voters, 8 million voters overall and 4 million directly at their doorsteps, and we’re talking to them about the extremism of the Democratic Party position on abortion, as evidenced by, in many of these races, the Democratic incumbents who are running for reelection.” 

As an example of the perceived Democrats’ extremism on the issue, she pointed to Senate Democrats holding a second vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, legislation that is “vastly out of step with the majority of Americans.” 

The measure would outlaw any restriction “on abortion at any point or points in time prior to fetal viability, including a prohibition or restriction on a particular abortion procedure” and even any restriction “on abortion after fetal viability when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.” In the bill, “viability” is left up to the abortion provider’s “good-faith medical judgment.”

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told the Register that her group has been “preparing for this moment for 50 years,” saying that “when Students for Life launched, it was meant to be the post-Roe organization that would prepare to be able to work in our states, on our campuses, and in the communities in a post-Roe era.” She emphasized that “no woman will be left standing alone” and highlighted the national scope of existing pregnancy-resource centers, pointing out that they have outnumbered abortion businesses in the country for years.

Hawkins said that, in Texas, where a ban on abortion at six weeks when the fetal heartbeat is detectable became law in September, the media largely ignored that the state “also funded to the tune of $100 million the Alternatives to Abortion Act, which supports women and families up to two or three years after the birth of their child.” 

Hawkins said that the end of Roe “will make the elections for state legislative races even more important,” noting that there were hundreds of pro-life laws introduced this legislative season. She said her group went door-knocking in Republican primaries in Indiana and Pennsylvania for pro-life candidates, saying that “we need actual pro-life Republicans who are going to act on this issue at the statehouse.” She added that Senate races will be “critical to defending democracy with the filibuster preventing mob rule” and that the group will be “intimately involved in both the state and federal elections.” 

Dustin Curtis, executive director at Students for Life Action, told the Register in a statement that the group has “plans to ensure pro-life majorities control state legislatures” and “efforts to break the abortion lobby’s ability to stop pro-life legislation in states like North Carolina, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wisconsin and Maine.”

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, told the Register that if Roe is overturned, “there will be some states that will immediately or soon after put full protection in the law for unborn children, and, of course, we’ve got those states like New York, New Jersey, Washington, California that are going in the opposite direction.” She anticipated that abortion law is “going to be a patchwork for quite a while.”

Tobias emphasized that pro-lifers should continue focusing on the midterm elections — especially given what’s at stake in the U.S. Senate. In the event that Democrats retain control of the House and gain more commanding control in the Senate, “we could have a national law of the land that wipes out everything we’ve been working on for many years.”