POLITICS

Could Roe fire up Democrats the way Joe Biden hasn’t? Maybe, but the GOP would be energized, too

Democrats say the potential threat to abortion rights could motivate their base in the 2022 elections. But it could do the same for Republicans, who want to retake control of Congress.

  • "I think the wholesale reversal of Roe is a wild card," said David Axelrod, a top Democratic consultant and former advisor to Barack Obama.
  • Hours after a leak of a draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade was published, Democrats fired off fundraising appeals.
  • But anti-abortion advocates say their base will be motivated to vote for those looking to restrict abortion access.

WASHINGTON – They gathered outside the court within hours of the leaked draft opinion being published Monday night. Young people protesting the potential overturning of the right to abortion decided by the Supreme Court long before their birth – nearly 50 years ago.

Sam Heller, a 21-year-old student at Cornell University, said she was shaking when she first read the leaked court opinion, a draft from February published by Politico that called the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling making abortion legal “egregiously wrong from the start.”

Heller and other abortion rights supporters were not the only demonstrators. Passionate anti-abortion advocates also showed up to voice support for overturning Roe.

“I’m even more motivated to vote,” Heller said late Monday night. “It’s something I can do instead of feeling helpless.” 

Was the leak illegal? Likely not.:The leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade not illegal, experts say

At a time when President Joe Biden’s approval rating has been underwater for months, the leaked opinion and possible overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court could energize Democratic voters in a way the president has so far been unable to do and give Democrats a better shot at maintaining control of Congress, some experts say. But interviews with anti-abortion advocates indicate their supporters would be energized, too.  

"I think the wholesale reversal of Roe is a wild card," said David Axelrod, a top Democratic consultant and former senior adviser and chief strategist for President Barack Obama. “Democrats are facing ferocious headwinds this fall. But if the court follows through on this, the backlash could provide some counterweight – particularly if it brings more pro-choice women and younger voters to the polls.”

Abortion rights activist Amy Nachtrab, of Delaware, Ohio, protests in support of abortion rights near the Supreme Court of Ohio. The protest comes a day after a U.S. Supreme Court draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked. The 1973 landmark ruling protects a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. About 75 people stood outside protesting as heavy rail fell, which grew to about 150 within an hour.

Republicans are eager to win control of both chambers of Congress, which would stifle Biden’s legislative agenda and open the door to a litany of congressional investigations of his administration.

The midterm elections in November will determine who controls Congress for the second half of Biden's term. The Senate is now tied with 50 members caucusing with each party and Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaking vote for Democrats. In the House, a swing in a handful of seats could tip control from Democrats to Republicans.

Republicans have had a considerable lead in voter enthusiasm. A recent ABC News/IPSOS survey found 55% of Republicans are very enthusiastic about voting in the midterm elections, compared with 35% of Democrats.

Enthusiasm among younger voters has been lagging, he said, but a CNN poll in January found 58% of Democrats under 45 years old would be “angry” if the court overturns Roe v. Wade, compared with 35% overall. “If that anger results in higher turnout, it could make a difference in some closely contested elections,” said Axelrod, director of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics and host of The Axe Files podcast.

Even as much of America was just learning about the draft decision, Democrats were already firing off fundraising appeals and statements to juice up supporters. “Make no mistake: Reproductive rights will be on the ballot this November,” the Democratic National Committee said in a midnight email Monday. “We will fight back with everything we have to make sure that Republicans have to answer for their party’s relentless attacks, but we can’t do that without you.”

LEAK NOT ILLEGAL:Leak of draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade not illegal, experts say

CLOSER LOOK:Graphics show consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade

Activists rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 02, 2022

The president of abortion rights group Emily’s List expressed confidence in an interview with USA TODAY that the leaked opinion will galvanize Democrats to vote in November.

"What I think we will see is the coming together of this country, people who may not have thought the same or voted the same last cycle,” Laphonza Butler said. “I think we will see communities of color, Native  communities standing together with suburban women and urban women. And I think that we will see a different outcome than we may have thought that we would have experienced two weeks ago." 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview with USA TODAY that the organization is working to put together campaigns that inform people what’s on the ballot, such as access to abortion rights, and “the repercussions of how they vote,” while also encouraging them to “make sure that their voices are heard.” 

“Voters are going to have to realize that they need to support those candidates who share their values,” Peters said. “And if they don't, they're going to have people in office that are going to vote against the things that they care about.”  

For anti-abortion advocates, the potential decision raises the prospect of realizing a culmination of everything they’ve been working toward for years, and they say their supporters will also be energized – to vote for candidates looking to restrict abortion access.

If the draft opinion overturning Roe is handed down, abortion access would be up to the states. 

“Pro-life voters will be energized to say we can really, finally debate and enact legislation and laws that will protect life and law and service,” Students for Life Action President Kristan Hawkins said. 

Protestors outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, after a draft Supreme Court opinion published by Politico on Monday suggested the court is considering a decision that would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. The stunning leak of a draft opinion, which USA TODAY could not independently verify, set off an unexpected firestorm around one of the nation's most divisive culture war issues and simultaneously raised questions about the court's deliberations and its ability to keep those discussions secret.

Both sides held up polling to support their argument – for and against abortion access.

The Republican National Committee issued a statement from Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who said the party “will always stand for the sanctity of life, speak up for the unborn, and protect vulnerable mothers.” She pointed to polling that showed most Americans want some form of abortion restrictions.

A Marist poll published in January found 71% of respondents wanted restrictions. They either wanted abortion limited to the first three months of a pregnancy (22%); to cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother (28%); just to save the mother (9%); or outlawed outright (12%).  

But Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota who previously served as Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president of external affairs in the state, said the Republican Party and its candidates are “completely out of step with what most Americans believe and want.”

IMPACT:People of color, poor and other marginalized people to bear the brunt if Roe overturned

SCOTUS FALLOUT:Leaked abortion opinion shakes trust in Supreme Court

She referenced a CNN poll released in January that found roughly 70% of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. When broken down by party, the poll showed 86% of Democrats, 72% of Independents and 44% of Republicans don’t want the ruling overturned. The survey was conducted by SSRS and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Smith said Republicans will have to answer why “they want to strip away this fundamental freedom of autonomy and self-determination that people care about so much.” And she said she believes that voters will come out for Democrats in the midterm elections now that the right to an abortion is in jeopardy.

But some Democrats expressed frustration and said the leaked opinion and the final decision, if it overturns Roe, could do the opposite.

Zaena Zamora, executive director of Frontera Fund, an organization in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas that advocates for abortion rights and raises money to help women get access to abortions, said she can also see voters feeling disenfranchised by the court’s potential decision – adding that she herself has become a little apathetic but has nevertheless voted in every election.

“We have a completely controlled Democratic House, Democratic Senate, Democratic White House, and look where we’re at,” she said. “We are doing what we're supposed to do, right? We vote in these politicians to fight for abortion rights, and they're not doing anything for it.” She added that it puts the onus on abortion advocacy groups, like Frontera Fund, to help people on the ground get the access they need. 

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Last year, Texas passed a law known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, which bans physicians from performing or inducing an abortion after the detection of embryonic or fetal cardiac activity, which usually occurs around six weeks of pregnancy. It also allows private citizens to bring lawsuits against those who help individuals get an abortion. 

The state also has a “trigger law” in place that would outlaw almost all abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

According to Emily’s List, in 2022 alone, 536 abortion restrictions have been introduced in 42 states.  

Zamora said she hopes that more people will begin asking politicians what their stance is on abortion. She noted that few candidates consistently talk about protecting abortion access and said many bring the topic up only when it’s in the news. 

“We've been saying for months that this was coming, and this is a huge possibility and that we need to prepare for it,” she said. “And it's not until, you know, this leaked draft comes out that they start really homing in on their messaging around abortion.” 

Protestors outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, after a draft Supreme Court opinion published by Politico on Monday suggested the court is considering a decision that would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. The stunning leak of a draft opinion, which USA TODAY could not independently verify, set off an unexpected firestorm around one of the nation's most divisive culture war issues and simultaneously raised questions about the court's deliberations and its ability to keep those discussions secret.

Kristin Ford, vice president of communications and research at NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, said she believes the draft opinion closes a believability gap some voters had – voters who believed there was no way the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. 

“A majority of people just couldn't fathom that the Supreme Court was going to strike down the constitutional right to abortion and we could lose the constitutional right that we've held here for half a century,” Ford said. “And now it's in black and white, like it's written plain as day."

Lila Rose, founder of Live Action, an anti-abortion organization, said she believes both sides may be energized by the decision, but she said Democrats would use abortion to try to distract voters from other key issues, such as inflation and rising gas prices, that could hurt them in the midterms.  

“It's not what Americans are interested in right now,” Rose said.  

Ford, of NARAL, said the deeply personal decisions on whether you are going to have a family are “fundamental to how people operate in the world” and are interconnected with pocketbook issues, including inflation, career growth and education.

“They're all interconnected in people's lived experiences and their real lives,” she said. “I think they will manifest that way when it comes to people's behavior at the voting booth.” 

Contributing: Mabinty Quarshie, Candy Woodall, Dylan Wells