On the left and among Democrats, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade on Friday was an earthshaking event. It prompted demonstrations across the country, a torrent of outrage and despair on social media, and big political speeches — including President Biden and other Democrats saying that “Roe is on the ballot” in this fall’s midterm elections.
The reaction was far more casual on the right. In conversations with over a half-dozen Republican insiders, who were granted anonymity to discuss the political ramifications frankly, there was a lingering sense of skepticism that abortion would still be a major issue in November and a belief that, even if it is, it might actually redound to the benefit of the GOP.
This wasn’t to say abortion wouldn’t matter in the midterms, but that the issue wouldn’t make a decisive difference at a time when voters have other problems on their minds. “Democrats are going to run on this but they are only going to run on this because they have no other choices this cycle,” one national Republican operative said. “It’s all they have at the end of the day when inflation is high and the economy is sagging.”
A D.C.-based operative noted that “in the immediate few weeks, there will be a lot of outrage as the dust settles, but this is a state-by-state, district-by-district issue.” The operative added that while the Dobbs decision might cause Democratic voters to turn out more heavily in deep-blue areas, there is doubt within GOP circles that this will cause a surge in Democratic voters in Texas or Florida. “People don’t notice abortion on a daily basis,” the operative argued. “They notice how much bacon costs for their kids and how much gas costs to fill up their car.”
There was some sense that the Court’s ruling was “a double-edged sword,” as one social conservative activist acknowledged. “It could help Democrats by reinvigorating them and pumping them up to get angry and turn out in the midterms, that could happen.” But there was also the belief that there are only limited gains to be had in the midterms. As the national operative explained it, “the problem that Democrats have here is that people who really care about abortion and are single-issue pro-choice voters are already all voting Democratic. If you dive into the polling, they are already squeezing every bit of juice out of young college-educated women, who are the group of people most motivated by this.”
And some of the Republicans thought it could actually be a net plus for the GOP in the fall. This was not because of the impact of the issue per se, but a sense that Democrats would turn it into a self-inflicted wound. “Democrats are going to overplay their hand,” one well-connected Republican predicted. “They overplay every hand they get.” The insider thought, for instance, that “there’s going to be violence and [Democrats are] not going to denounce the violence.” Another red-state operative put it more bluntly: The sight of “a bunch of pink-haired women lighting fires in the streets” was not going to motivate moderate pro-choice women to vote for Democrats.
A senior Capitol Hill staffer made a similar point: “The left has lost the plot so much, it will neutralize what will be a vote-moving issue. The traditional left argument is about protecting women, but now they can’t even say what a woman is.” As the red-state operative wondered, the question is also whether abortion becomes a separate issue from the current cultural wars or if it just becomes “part and parcel with drag-queen story time and teaching kids hypersexual content in schools” and the other social issues currently animating the right.
Further, the well-connected Republican thought the heated rhetoric being used on the left would leave voters skeptical. “What it’s going to do is crystallize dishonesty and lack of integrity of the Democratic Party,” they claimed. “We are in a situation where Democrats are doing their best Chicken Little impression and most people are going to find out their lives don’t change at all. AOC is the one being shown all over the news, saying ‘women’s rights being taken away, next they’re going to come after gay marriage and come after birth control.’ They’re not, nobody cares about that, and voters are going to see the sky isn’t falling.” Or as the D.C.-based operative reasoned, “The country has survived a majority of our years without Roe v. Wade. Things will be fine. We’ll figure it out.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean the midterms will be disconnected from the court’s decision, or fail to have an impact on the debate over abortion. “The first elections after Roe are going to determine a lot moving forward,” the social conservative activist suggested, and that might not be a good thing for the Democratic Party. “If the GOP wins huge majorities after the Democrats have made abortion the centerpiece of the midterms, Democrats will have lost so much political influence on this issue.”