For decades, Democrats insisted that Republicans would invite a major voter backlash if they took aggressive action to curtail abortion rights.
Now, as a growing number of GOP-led states do just that, passing a slew of bills curtailing abortion with no exemptions for rape and incest, they fear that voters are uninformed or misinformed about the stakes. And they are sounding the alarm that more is needed to engage voters and warn them that the current slate of laws is just the beginning.
To reach voters in key swing states, Planned Parenthood is launching a national $16 million TV, streaming and digital ad campaign. The campaign, first shared with POLITICO, will run in states like Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Ohio and Florida and focus on reaching voters of color and young people. The ads will run through the Supreme Court ruling expected this summer on a challenge to Roe v. Wade and are accompanied by Spanish and English websites to educate the public on abortion access in different states, locate health centers and provide resources on how to get politically involved.
The move comes as Democratic pollsters, campaign operatives and candidates argue that the party needs to act more aggressively ahead of the high court’s decision and not wait until the ruling is handed down. Key to making this reality stick, they say, is President Joe Biden.
“We absolutely need [Biden’s] voice now,” said Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who is running for reelection. “I know he has a lot on his plate right now as leader of the free world. But certainly the voice of the president is important to this. A whole lot more people are going to listen to what Joe Biden says as opposed to Kwame Raoul.”
The Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on a case concerning Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. But its decision could end up overturning or gutting the national protections for abortion rights that have been in place for half a century. Not waiting for the judgment to come down, red states from Arizona to Florida have passed a host of sweeping bans on the procedure.
Democratic candidates, White House officials and allied groups remain confident they can benefit politically from this moment. Polling shows that Democratic base voters and independents oppose the changes happening in red states, but much of the public is still skeptical that abortion rights could effectively vanish.
But national Republicans are doing their own work to define the debate, aiming to label Democrats as “extremists” on the issue. But Democrats point out that public polling is on their side. What’s missing, they insist, is a concerted and coordinated message from party leaders to more forcefully go after Republicans.
“Defending Roe v. Wade is a five-alarm fire, and I’m deeply concerned that millions of Americans’ reproductive rights are at serious risk,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Democrats need to mobilize an effective response — and every voter should know that Roe is on the ballot in November.”
There is plenty of history for Democrats to point to proving the electoral benefits that the issue can provide. Ten years ago, then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) saw his Senate campaign crumble when he declared that women’s bodies have a way of preventing pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape.”
But with Republican-controlled states seeking to restrict abortion even in cases of rape and incest, a similar backlash has yet to materialize.
Democratic operatives working on races up and down the ballot say it will come and that they’ve seen a slow shift in the past three months as more voters become aware of the abortion restrictions passed in Republican-controlled states. One Democratic Senate political operative said the issue is starting to come up “organically” in focus groups and the room “comes alive.” But, that same operative said, most voters still haven’t connected the dots to the looming federal change and mistakenly think Roe is almost untouchable.
The White House says it’s aware of the disconnect. Jennifer Klein, co-chair of the White House Gender Policy Council, said the administration knows “people are not really focused or absorbing what is about to happen,” which she attributes to the country being in “an unprecedented moment.”
Klein added that the White House has been preparing for the past year for the high court’s decision. That preparation includes listening sessions held by Vice President Kamala Harris with health care providers, patients and advocates across Texas, Mississippi and Kentucky. Last week, Klein and other White House officials met with state legislators from Oklahoma, Missouri and Nebraska where legislative bodies have passed or attempted to pass laws restricting access to abortions.
“This court is poised to overturn 50 years of precedent,” said Klein. “At the moment, what we are doing is working very hard to explore all options, every option to protect reproductive health care, including access to abortion, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Biden, a devout Catholic, has a complicated relationship with the issue. After being one of the party’s most vocal anti-abortion rights lawmakers for the majority of his career, he shifted and embraced positions favored by the party’s base during his presidential bid — such as lifting the longstanding ban on federal funding for abortion and only nominating Supreme Court justices who support abortion rights. Though he has made good on many of his promises — mainly rolling back Trump administration restrictions on federal programs — Democratic officials and activists say he hasn’t used the bully pulpit enough.
“We need the leader of the party to show full-throated support and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to protect the right to abortion and to look for ways to expand access where possible,” said Morgan Hopkins, the interim executive director of campaigns at All* Above All, one of several abortion-rights groups that have pushed the administration for more action. “Elected officials and candidates have such an incredible reach and platform, especially the president, to talk about the urgency of this moment.”
Hopkins and other advocates have also complained about the president’s tendency to avoid using the word “abortion” in speeches and resorting to euphemisms, which they argue contributes to the stigma around the issue. In his first State of the Union address this spring, for example, Biden spoke about “protecting the rights of women” and “access to health care.”
Asked about Biden’s proclivity to avoid the word “abortion,” Klein said, “what’s most important” is that everybody in the White House from Biden to Harris and senior officials are “really very clear about how high a priority this is.”
The White House has discussed federal actions Biden can take with state and local officials in recent weeks, including the possibility of allowing people’s Medicaid coverage to follow them if they have to travel to another state to receive an abortion, and expanding family planning services to people traveling from other states. It’s not yet clear which of these ideas, if any, are legally or logistically possible, particularly since many states have restrictions on what Medicaid can cover. Though some blue states have passed bills to shore up abortion rights in anticipation of the court’s ruling, advocates warn they are far from ready to handle the massive fallout the decision could bring in just a few months — including a flood of people traveling from more restrictive states seeking to terminate a pregnancy.
“There’s a weird uncertainty right now and a wait-and-see feeling,” explained Mary Ziegler, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law who focuses on the history of the abortion fight. “While everyone expects the Supreme Court to overrule Roe, they haven’t done it yet. So there’s a sort of paralysis among Democrats.”
Republicans and conservative advocacy groups, meanwhile, are confident that the politics of the abortion fight are in their favor, and have leaned into portraying Biden and Democrats as extreme on the issue. Senate Republicans, for example, are forcing a vote as soon as this week on a bill that would reimpose the Trump administration’s ban on abortion referrals in the Title X family planning program that Biden recently lifted.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, enthusiastically backs the effort.
“It is our sacred responsibility to protect babies, born and unborn, from all acts of violence,” he said in a statement on the bill.
National polling has found that much of the voting public is uninformed or misinformed about the upcoming Supreme Court ruling and the stakes for abortion rights — with nearly two-thirds saying either that they don’t know how likely the court is to overturn Roe or that the court isn’t likely to overturn the precedent. Still, most voters say they want Roe upheld and want abortion to remain legal in most or all cases.
“Most Americans don’t support overturning Roe v. Wade or banning abortion across the board, and the Democratic Party fits pretty neatly in that mainstream view,” said John Labombard, a Democratic strategist at ROKK Solutions who has worked for Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). “We’re in a good position to have a broad coalition going into Election Day, but only if we make this issue crystal clear in every single race across the country.”
So far, however, only a handful of major Democratic candidates have put the issue front and center, including some governors and state attorneys general who are directly grappling with the impact of anti-abortion laws in their own and neighboring states.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, for example, are teaming up to try to get rid of the state’s abortion ban — that has been on the books since the 1930s and would go back into effect if Roe is overturned — as they run for reelection in one of the most difficult swing states for Democrats.
Nessel told POLITICO that even though Republicans’ anti-abortion moves helped Democrats prevail in the state in 2018 and 2020, she’s concerned the issue hasn’t yet broken through this year.
“Will people come out and vote or will they stay home?” she said. “We know the vast majority of Michiganders want to see Roe upheld, but will they recognize now how dire the situation is? Or will it be the moment they need a medical procedure they can no longer obtain?”