Commentary: Abortion Once Again at Forefront of Election

by Salena Zito


The prevailing belief in the Democratic Party is that abortion will again be a potent issue against Republicans in this year’s election cycle just as it was in 2022 – and that this time it will not just cost the GOP gaining the majority in the U.S. Senate, but also give Democrats the upper hand in retaining the presidency and winning back the House.

Abortion rights put the brakes on the Republicans’ chances in 2022 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion after almost 50 years; a decision that transformed American politics that year, benefiting Democrats who were on their way to a bruising midterm election defeat.

Last week, President Biden placed it center stage again when he argued at a pro-choice rally in Florida that Trump had “ripped away” women’s freedom around the country by his three U.S. Supreme Court picks.

Biden said it is the female vote that holds the political power to push back against restrictions they may encounter in their states. “When you do that, it will teach Donald Trump and the extreme MAGA Republicans a valuable lesson: Don’t mess with the women of America,” he said.

Earlier this month, Trump said on Truth Social that abortion should be left to the states in the post-Roe era. “The states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land,” he said. “Many states will be different. Many will have a different number of weeks, or some will be more conservative than others, and that’s what they will be. At the end of the day, this is all about the will of the people.”

Trump is right in saying that “many states will be different.” Since 2022 there have been 14 states, all governed by Republicans, which have placed new abortion restrictions in effect that essentially bans it at every stage.

However, several other states, either through ballot measures, executive order, or legislative action, have kept a woman’s right to abortion services legal – including the three critically important states of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Those Rust Belt redoubts will mostly likely decide who the next president of the United States will be, and which party holds the majority in the Senate.

This is the current Republican senate candidates Bernie Moreno in Ohio and David McCormick in Pennsylvania (Michigan’s primary is not until August) must navigate. But are these headwinds as strong as Democrats assume?

“The truth is simply McCormick can’t take away abortion rights in Pennsylvania,” said Chris Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, adding, “As stands in Pennsylvania the status quo is right now that those protections exist and to undo it would take significant action on the part of the state.”

That is going to be very difficult to do when you have a sitting Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro who has been unequivocal in protecting Pennsylvania’s abortion laws, as well as a majority of Democrats in the legislature, Borick explained.

“I think Democrats want voters to see a direct and imminent threat of Republicans winning and changing policy to make it more restrictive, be it in Pennsylvania or anywhere,” explained Borick. “They hope voters are concentrating on that. Again, does that translate into real immediate threats in terms of policy? It’s probably not as simple as that.”

In January at a Philadelphia campaign event, Sen. Bob Casey Jr., whose own position on Roe has evolved over the years, said the U.S. Supreme Court was “a right-wing Supreme Court (that) tore away a 49-year right for women,” adding “rights for women are on the ballot in this race as well.”

McCormick said in a statement that he is pro-life and opposes a national abortion ban: “In Pennsylvania, the current law supported by both Republicans and Democrats means abortion is legal through 24 weeks,” he noted.

McCormick campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Gregory added that McCormick agrees with Trump’s statement about decisions best made by individual states.

Paul Sracic, professor of political science at Youngstown State University, says in Ohio what would help Democrats gain an edge in the Buckeye State is if Republicans push for a national ban on abortion, “Trump seems to understand that, post-Dobbs – abortion has been a losing issue for the GOP, and has said that if elected he wouldn’t sign such a ban,” he said.

“But making abortion an issue in a state which now offers more protection for abortion rights than anything offered by the Supreme Court in Roe seems somewhat counterintuitive,” Sracic added.

Last November, voters in Ohio decisively approved a constitutional amendment that guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion access. The referendum wasn’t even close, passing by a whopping 57 percent, establishing a constitutional right to an abortion, and rejecting laws passed by the Republican majority legislature to restrict access.

Democrats were buoyed by that result, but at the same time, the referendum may have made abortion a less salient issue for Democratic and Republican candidates alike in Ohio. That’s Bernie Moreno’s hope, anyway. But Sherrod Brown has other ideas: the three-term incumbent is trying to make abortion center stage in his reelection campaign.

“What Brown sees is that if he can capture the votes of those who supported enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution, who could recreate something close to his victory map in 2018, when he won counties in Northeast Ohio that have moved strongly in the GOP direction,” Sracic said.

Trump carried Ohio in both 2016 and 2020, and is poised to do so again, according to the RealClearPolitics Average: Trump leads there by 12 percentage points.

Ohio is also dominated by Republicans down ballot; they hold the governor’s office, attorney general’s office, and the legislature is GOP-majority. Brown first won his Senate seat in 2012, riding Barack Obama’s coattails to victory, but that is the last time a Democratic national candidate carried Ohio. All of which means that to hold onto this seat, Sen. Brown would need a significant number of ticket-splitters. As soon as Moreno won the Republican Senate primary in March, national and state Democrats started trying to nudge voters in just that direction. They blasted away on social media and released an ad proclaiming that a vote for Moreno over Brown was “a vote for a national abortion ban.”

Will independent voters and pro-choice Republicans be swayed by that pitch? It may depend on whether they believe it. “The fact is, the likelihood of Congress passing such a ban is very slim, even if Republicans keep control of the House and win back the Senate,” said Sracic. “There is also some doubt as to whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to institute such a ban.”

Michigan voters, like their neighbors in Ohio, approved a comprehensive amendment to the state’s constitution guaranteeing the right to abortion and other reproductive health services in November of 2022. It passed with over 55 percent of the vote just months after Roe was overturned.

Former Republican congressman Mike Rogers, one of several Republicans running in the Michigan primary for the open Senate seat (and the only one who has received Trump’s endorsement) is staunchly pro-life. To neutralize the issue, however, Rogers has stressed that he also respects the will of the Michigan voters.

“The people of Michigan spoke in a loud voice in 2022 and this is a settled issue in our state,” said Rogers, adding, “I will take no position as their voice in Washington that is at odds with the Michigan constitution.”

In phrasing their position this way, Republicans such as Rogers and Moreno are trying to walk a narrow line. In trying to accomplish two things at once – inoculate themselves against Democratic Party attacks that they’ll take away women’s rights while not alienating their pro-life supporters – they might accomplish neither.

Professor Borick tells RCP that while the Democrats’ claim that Republican congressional candidates will take your reproductive rights away is not really true, federal and state laws and lawmakers are often “conflated in voters’ minds.”

And Trump’s statement about it being a state issue keeps it salient.

“I think Democrats want voters to see a direct and imminent threat of Republicans winning and changing policy to make it more restrictive, be it in Pennsylvania or anywhere,” said Borick. “They hope voters are concentrating on that. Again, does that translate into real immediate threats in terms of policy? It’s not as simple as that.” But it might be good politics.

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Salena Zito is a reporter for the Washington Examiner, Wall Street Journal contributor, and co-author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.”
Photo “United States Supreme Court” by Sunira Moses. CC BY-SA 3.0.



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