Republicans finally got the Roe v. Wade decision they wanted, and in public, they are delighted.
More quietly, however, according to interviews with more than a dozen Republican strategists and party officials, they just didn’t want it to come right now — not during a midterm election campaign in which nearly everything had been going right for the GOP.
“This is not a conversation we want to have,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country. “We want to have a conversation about the economy. We want to have a conversation about Joe Biden, about pretty much anything else besides Roe … This is a losing issue for Republicans.”
The decision, issued Friday, was a landmark victory for conservatives who have held up overturning Roe as an ambition of near-biblical significance, fundraising, organizing and legislating off opposition to abortion rights for nearly half a century.
But it’s a victory that will almost certainly come at a cost. In Republican circles, a consensus has been forming for weeks that the court’s overturning of a significant — and highly popular — precedent on a deeply felt issue will be a liability for the party in the midterms and beyond, undercutting Republicans to at least some degree with moderates and suburban women.
Before Roe came down, said a former Republican congressman familiar with the party’s campaign operation, “Everything was going our way. Gas is above $5. Inflation is a giant problem.”
“The only thing [Democrats] have got going for them is the Roe thing, which is what, 40 years of settled law that will be changed that will cause some societal consternation,” said the former congressman, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “And can they turn that into some turnout? I think the answer is probably ‘Yes.’”
“Maybe instead of losing 45 seats, they lose 30,” he said, while at a minimum, “there will be a few seats that Republicans would have won without [the abortion rights decision], and they may not win them now.”
Almost no political professional — Republican or Democrat — expects the court’s decision on abortion to upend the electoral landscape severely enough to keep Republicans from winning the House in November. In recent elections, abortion has not been the motivating issue that Democrats once anticipated it might be, and even polling earlier this month, when Roe was widely expected to be overturned, had abortion falling below other concerns, including jobs and the economy, as an issue of significance to voters.
“You go to any diner in America, and nobody’s talking about this,” said Dave Carney, a national Republican strategist based in New Hampshire. “That’s not what’s driving the conversation. Real people, working people, people who vote, are talking about the incompetence of the president, and then they go down the list of six or seven things,” including the rising price of goods and the recent baby formula shortage.
The problem for Republicans with the Roe decision is that it’s giving Democrats something to grasp onto in an otherwise bleak year — the kind of issue that may animate some lower-propensity voters, including young Democrats, to turn out in November, and blunt the GOP’s appeals to independent voters, a majority of whom also support Roe, according to Gallup.
Republicans, said Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist who became a vocal supporter of Joe Biden in 2020, are now “the dog that caught the car.”
“Then what? The motivation moves to the left in terms of who feels they’re the ones who have to be on offense,” she said. “People will fight harder for a thing that they want rather than reward people for a thing they already have.”
One Republican operative familiar with polling in federal and state races and spoke on condition of anonymity said the most important impact may be on swing voters who lean Republican. “It takes a sizeable bloc of voters who were leaning [Republican], and it gives them reason to vote Democrat,” he said. “And they haven’t had any reason to vote Democrat in quite a while.”
Paradoxically, the politics of the Roe reversal would likely not be so distressing for Republicans if everything else wasn’t going so well for them. Biden’s public approval rating, a metric closely tied to a party’s performance in the midterms, has sunk below 40 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, worse than former President Barack Obama’s was at this point in the run-up to Democrats’ midterm shellacking in 2010. Inflation is already souring the electorate, and a recession may be next.
But even if Roe alone is not sufficient to remake the midterms in Democrats’ favor, it could fit into what Longwell called an “overall case the Democratic Party should be prosecuting against Republicans” — wedding Roe with the court’s decision the previous day on gun control, among other issues, to depict the post-Donald Trump GOP as one still animated by extremes.
On Friday, the court provided fodder for that line of attack, when Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, argued the court “should reconsider” protections for contraception access and same-sex marriage. And the post-Roe fallout itself will reverberate in states for months, focusing attention on state-level campaigns as red-leaning states prepare to enact restrictions.
Already, Republicans are wincing at the consequences. In the swing state of Pennsylvania, Democrats have been pummeling the Republican gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano, for a position opposing abortion rights that includes no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. In Georgia, another swing state, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee, Herschel Walker, is facing similar criticism. In a message that Democrats will likely repeat for months, incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock issued a fundraising appeal on Friday afternoon with the subject line: “Our opponent says he wants a total ban on abortion.”
Jason Roe, the former executive director of the state Republican Party in Michigan, described himself as “nervous about it” because “the opportunities we should have with suburban women become more complicated when that issue is on the table, and I think it puts us on defense.”
For nearly 50 years, ever since Roe v. Wade was issued in 1973, it has been the opposite, with Republicans on a sustained offensive to overturn the decision — chipping away at its protections in red-leaning states, working to advance conservative judicial nominees and invoking the issue as a litmus test in GOP primaries. And publicly, conservatives on Friday did take a victory lap.
“Life wins!” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, said in a prepared statement. “Millions of Americans are celebrating today’s ruling and a pro-life movement that has worked tirelessly for decades.”
But Republicans running in elections this year have been preparing since the publication of a draft ruling last month in POLITICO to turn the political debate away from Roe as sharply as possible, seemingly cognizant of its downsides. In a messaging memo obtained by Axios in May, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s campaign arm, urged Republicans to depict Democrats as fixated on “extreme views” on abortion, while asserting that Republicans’ support for abortion restrictions is ”reasonable” and “Republicans are focused on getting the economy back on track and keeping your family safe.”
“Republicans won’t want to deflect from the economy whatsoever,” said former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat this year, “because that’s what people are feeling every day.”
It may not be possible for Republicans to maintain that level of discipline. Partly, that’s because Democrats will relentlessly fan the issue in the run-up to November. But it’s also because one significant segment of the Republican Party — anti-abortion activists — want to talk about Roe, too, especially as states this summer take up post-Roe restriction.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the nation’s leading anti-abortion groups, said this week that along with its partner organizations, it plans to spend $78 million this election cycle. In recent weeks, anti-abortion advocates have been briefing Republican lawmakers and candidates on ways to campaign on the issue in a post-Roe landscape, arming them with polling that suggests Americans, while overwhelmingly saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, nevertheless express openness to some restrictions.
“This is the Democrats’ Hail Mary pass,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “They can’t win on the economy, they can’t win on foreign policy, they can’t win on cultural issues, and they are going to want to have this discussion, and I don’t think we can deflect.”
But Heckman, who consults for Susan B. Anthony, said conservatives, too, have “wanted to have a nationwide debate about this since 1973, and now we’re going to have one. And as Republicans and conservatives and advocates for life, now we’re going to have to go out and make our case and win it.”
Every poll and political strategist of both parties would suggest that any other issue this year is riper for Republicans to exploit and that, politically, there is little upside for the GOP in the shifting focus to Roe.
Still, Heckman said, “We can’t choose when the Supreme Court acts, and certainly the left will come roaring out of the starting gate, as they’ve indicated they will. So, we just have to engage and present the other side.”
He added, “I think it’s a case we can win.”