D.C. Insiders Grapple with the Politics of Roe

Susan Collins
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
June 27, 2022

For more than a month, ever since news of the Supreme Court’s draft ruling overturning Roe v. Wade was broken by Politico, Democrats and Republicans have had the chance to contemplate strategies about how to respond to the news, its historic consequences, and the second-order effects. Indeed, during the past 72 hours, voters from both parties have been galvanized by the ruling, as one might expect, and cable news and social media have been filled with reactions, outrage, and commentary. The left has been electrically horrified by the reversal while many on the right either want to view it as an incremental step toward more significant changes to our cultural fabric, or at least consider this issue settled and move on to other topics, such as oil prices.

The professional political class, however, is still not quite sure what to make of the issue, or how to use it to their political advantage ahead of the midterm elections. The reversal itself has energized the voting base for both parties, but lawmakers, congressional aides and operatives are privately terrified that the extremes of their parties could hijack the conversation and turn off the low-propensity voters that they need to engage this November. 

Since the ruling dropped on Friday, I’ve been working the phones to canvas political insiders about what they’re hearing and projecting. Here are the handful of themes that people are privately talking about right now regarding the reversal of Roe v. Wade and its political consequences.

1. The Timing

The timing of the decision was not great for the Democrats. It came down while members were literally walking onto the House floor to vote for historic gun legislation—the first major gun legislation in 26 years, something that so many thought couldn’t be achieved—and many in the party were looking forward to taking a victory lap on the Sunday shows, and in their districts over the holidays. But suddenly the decision, which was rumored to be dropping within a window of a few days, changed the conversation entirely. It even bailed out Texas Senator John Cornyn, who had attracted criticism within his party for his support of the gun law. He used the opportunity to regain his street cred with the carnivorous G.O.P. base by tweeting, provocatively, that the high court’s stunning reversal of a fifty-year precedent followed in the tradition of Brown v. Board of Education.

Days later, most Democrats are still stunned. The White House was ready with a speech, but the president is not the perfect messenger on abortion. A lot of older Democratic men, particularly Catholics like Joe Biden, find the topic uncomfortable, and difficult to play from the middle because they face backlash from both sides. They recognize they are a long way from “safe, legal, and rare,” the messaging Democrats once clung to as a shield against being caricatured by Republicans as extremists, themselves.

Democrats privately acknowledge that if they were going to be dealt this bruising ruling, it would have been better had the news dropped in September and October in order to increase voter turnout closer to the midterm elections. According to two new polls, far more Democrats than Republicans say the ruling has motivated them to vote in November. But four months is a painfully long time to occupy the American psyche. Just four months ago, by way of comparison, Russia invaded Ukraine. Now that issue hardly tops the list of voters’ priorities when they are competing with pocketbook issues like inflation and gas prices. Are there enough single-issue abortion voters on either side to prompt a huge surge in the electorate? Perhaps that bloc may yet make the difference in close races and in purple states. But the underlying fundamentals that typically predict election outcomes—an unpopular president, high gas prices, pendular backlash to the party in power—remain unchanged.

Nevertheless, some on the left hope that widespread outrage will at least unearth some marginal voters, and possibly help frontline swing-district Dems. “It had been looking like a typical midterm election. Now this decision throws a huge wildcard into the mix,” Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who represents the suburbs of Philadelphia, told me. “That said, anyone who thinks this will be a silver bullet, I think that’s ‘irrational exuberance.’ But where this will likely make a difference is in turning out occasional Democratic voters who tend to not vote in midterms.”  

2. Speaking of Voters…

While this ruling is not going to change everything, it may help a dozen swing district Democrats who blew into Congress during the suburban wave in 2018, like Tom Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey; Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria of Virginia; and Elissa Slotkin in Michigan. Stanching the bleeding for Democrats could ultimately change the calculus for Kevin McCarthy from a 35 seat majority to a more slender 20 seat majority. This could cause some headaches for him, especially if there are a few dozen members who are not willing to go along with G.O.P. leadership on everything. 

3. The Left Fears a Split

By and large, Democrats know that they have public opinion on their side with 70 percent of voters disagreeing with overturning Roe. But, according to the people I spoke to, they don’t know what to do with that information, and they fear that while they figure it out, the far-left’s fury over the issue, while understandable and justified, will somehow undermine their efforts. “We can march and rally all we’d like. It’s a great outlet for frustration and anger,” said Democratic strategist Jennifer Holdsworth, who was Pete Buttigieg’s national finance director. “But mainstream Democrats who have been fighting for years now not only need to contend with an extreme right, but an extreme left hellbent on sabotaging our efforts.”

Strategists like Holdsworth worry about Twitter activists and younger voters blaming the Democratic Party or turning on each other—even though the House did pass a bill to codify Roe in September. (And, frankly, it’s unclear if Democrats have ever had the votes to codify Roe, at least not without eliminating the filibuster.) There’s also a legitimate fear that anger will turn to disillusionment, and that voters will sit on their hands instead of voting. As my partner Peter Hamby reported last week, citing new polling, Gen Z in particular is more progressive but also less likely to support political parties than older generations. Will the end of Roe bring them into the Democratic fold, or convince them that the party can’t be relied upon to represent their interests?

4. What Will DeSantis Do?

Will Ron DeSantis or Glenn Youngkin face conservative backlash for their more moderate stances on abortion? DeSantis immediately jumped on the ruling to say that he’ll expand pro-life protections without offering much detail. (Florida does not have trigger laws.) Instead, DeSantis has said he supports a 15-week ban on abortion. But will this be enough for evangelicals? Some wonder whether the likely ‘24 candidate will be able to suitably contort his position in line with his MAGA social warrior image to placate his base. Plus, DeSantis still needs to get re-elected as governor in Florida, where nearly 70 percent of voters supported Roe, before he can entertain a bid for the presidency. 

Trump-lite G.O.P. heartthrob Governor Glenn Youngkin, too, advocates a 15-week ban on abortion in Virginia. “It’s actually a tell that you haven’t seen the criticism from the right on Youngkin and DeSantis,” said a Republican strategist who has worked for Trump in the past. “The view is, basically: Look, we might have a more conservative view than Youngkin or DeSantis, but at least they’re moving in the right direction, when for 40 years it’s been totally unrestricted.” 

Perhaps that’s the conventional wisdom within the MAGA bloc now, but that will likely change if, and when, DeSantis launches a presidential bid and becomes egged on to prove his conservative cred to evangelicals. Will that pressure ultimately affect his governance as he tries to use Florida as a model for his presidency? (And ditto for Youngkin, another Jeff Roe disciple, who may one day consider a bid for the White House.) As for Trump, he’s been pro-choice for most of his life and finds the topic to be a political loser. 

5. The Codification Question

Democrats are looking at their latest success with the gun bill, which originated in the Senate with the support of Mitch McConnell, as a possible blueprint for legalizing abortion nationwide. “The smartest thing the party can do is make Susan Collins look like an idiot,” said one Democratic operative. He explained that the Democrats could hammer the moderate Republican senator from Maine, who supported Brett Kavanaugh during his infamous confirmation, after she said she believed that he wasn’t going to overturn Roe, with negative ads. “If she wanted to save her political ass, she should find some Republicans to cross over with her.” He summed up Collins’ hypothetical thinking as similar to what Cornyn did with the passage of the gun bill. 

Collins, 69, who is not up for reelection until 2026 and will likely retire after this term, could work alongside another moderate Republican, like Rob Portman, who is retiring in 2022, to codify some sort of law on abortion that makes it legal across all 50 states, but still largely restricted and moderated. (Many Republicans I speak to privately prefer this policy to an outright ban.) 

Such putative legislation seems like a long-shot, but if we’ve learned anything from the gun bill, it’s that the only way to pass anything this close to the midterms is to get buy-in from Republicans and keep the White House, which is lacking juice with the Senate, out of the picture. 

6. The Long Game

Indeed, the Roe ruling was overwhelmingly popular when it passed in 1973 because it was perceived as a way to protect women from back-alley abortions. But the further the party has moved away from the aforementioned “safe, legal, and rare” stance, the more difficult it has been to fight the right on the issue.

In fact, Democrats have a lot to learn from Republicans in terms of playing the long game and building support at the hyper local level.​​ The Republican plan to one day overturn Roe v. Wade wasn’t a five or six year plan, but rather a near 50 year effort with organizations like the Federalist Society invested in grooming and placing conservative judges across the country, while Republican donors and national party officials supported a bench of elected officials from the school boards to the state legislatures to the mayorships and beyond, all with the goal of one day overturning the decision.

This all happened while Democrats accepted the ruling as settled law instead of working hard to codify it, or building legislative support at the state level where the laws will now be decided. “We had no strategy, we rested on our laurels, there’s no real winnings because Republicans played it perfectly, and no one wants to admit it,” one Democratic operative told me. “It’s not Trump’s fault, it’s our fault that we let this happen.” This operative pointed out that in 2014, Democrats lost 900 seats in the state legislatures. He blamed this phenomenon on the party contracting after wins, instead of using them to build a stronger bench and focusing too heavily on winning presidential elections over state and local races. This preparation for the future is also reflected in the G.O.P.’s ever-expanding presidential bench. Meanwhile, the Democrats are still struggling to figure out who will run for president in 2024 if Biden does not. 

7. The Best Focus Group

Sometimes our mothers are our best focus groups, especially when the A.A.R.P. and other organizations suggest that women over 50, who tend to swing presidential races, will again be the deciding vote in the midterm elections. So I asked my mom what she thought. Here are some stats on my mom, Yolanda Palmeri: She’s 59 and is precisely the sort of confusing white suburban female voter who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and then Trump in 2020. She’s lived in Sherrill and Malinowski’s swing districts of N.J., but because of high living costs, recently moved to North Carolina where she lives in a suburb of Charlotte, represented by the Republican Patrick McHenry. 

While the abortion ruling was upsetting to her, reminding her of a time when abortion was a dangerous procedure performed without regulations, she still favors pocketbook issues in November. She said she would like to keep the status quo in North Carolina, where abortion is still legal, even though McHenry supported the ruling. She said she will consider the positions of candidates on abortion when voting in the midterms, but ultimately she is unhappy with the direction of the country under the leadership of Biden and will likely vote for a candidate that seems to understand her economic concerns. I’m not trying to say that my mother is America. But I am saying that the Democrats won’t be able to achieve their objectives until they can find a way to connect with her.