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Democrats energized after leaked abortion decision jolts midterms

Democrats at every level across the country were capitalizing on a potentially seismic shift in the political landscape as the draft Supreme Court opinion upended this year's contests.
Pro-abortion rights supporters protest outside the Supreme Court, on May 3, 2022.
Pro-abortion rights supporters protest outside the Supreme Court, on May 3, 2022.Valerie Plesch for NBC News

Not yet 24 hours after the publication of a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn constitutional protections of abortion rights, Democrats at every level across the country were capitalizing on a potentially seismic shift in the political landscape that could upend what was to have been a bloodbath of a midterm election for an otherwise disillusioned party.   

Attacks on Republican candidates are underway, as are a flurry of pleas for donations. Ads defending abortion rights are rapidly populating social media. The Democratic National Committee launched a text messaging campaign to move people to the streets, while some of the most powerful Democratic groups in the country were huddling to reshape their messaging. 

“This decision and this leak — hell, that just re-stoked the fire in our bellies,” said Felesia Martin, the vice chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “You know what I say? ‘God bless you and thank you.’ We’re going to take this and let it motivate us and re-energize us to do the work.”    

After Politico published the draft opinion Monday night, Martin said, rank-and-file Democrats were calling with offers to knock on doors, help organize rallies or lobby state legislators. In Madison, Wisconsin, a massive rally was expected at the Capitol early Tuesday evening. 

That was just one of the rallies planned around the country Tuesday in a coordinated push by the DNC, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood and other national groups to move activists to courthouses, governor’s mansions and town squares to protest the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade.

JB Poersch, the president of the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, said his group will use radio, TV and digital ads, as well as door-to-door canvassing and field activity, to remind voters about what’s at stake: the prospect that a Republican-led Senate would prevent President Joe Biden from filling Supreme Court vacancies and pursue a nationwide abortion ban.

“We’re going to make sure people understand this threat,” he said. 

It was already clear Tuesday that battleground-state Democrats got the message.

In Nevada, an activist group was reaching out to Latinos to explain the draft decision and emphasize the renewed significance of the midterm elections. Abortion is legal in Nevada, and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who is up for re-election, moved to boost funding of health care centers. But a Republican governor or a GOP-led Legislature could slash those dollars or push for other barriers, like parental consent, they argued.

“This is the wake-up call,” said Cecia Alvarado, the Nevada executive director of Somos Votantes, an activist group that aims to engage Latinos. “We have been so busy holding political debates that [Republicans] have taken advantage … of everyone talking about gas prices when they’re trying to dismantle our right to access a safe abortion.” 

In Michigan, Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said that she has been bombarded with calls and emails and that online donations have ramped up since the news of the Supreme Court’s pending decision.   

“This has lit a fire under people,” Barnes said. “What it does is bring what was abstract into sharp relief. It makes it real for folks.”  

The probability that a conservative Supreme Court could overturn the 49-year-old law offers Democrats a clear and powerful message when the party suffers from bleak poll numbers, an unpopular president and a deficiency in effective messaging, Democratic strategists say. The message now: Republicans will overreach if they’re not stopped.     

“It’s a giant leap backwards we’ve taken, and now everything is on the table,” said Pete Giangreco, a national Democratic strategist who worked on Barack Obama’s campaigns. “Whatever the radical right wants, this court will give them.”

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last week found 2-to-1 national support for upholding Roe v. Wade. It said 54 percent of U.S. adults want to preserve the ruling, while 28 percent want to overturn it; 18 percent expressed no opinion. Surveys in recent years have found particularly high support for protecting Roe v. Wade among independent, suburban and college-educated women.

For all the attention the abortion issue commands, Republican strategists say it’s not one they’ll emphasize in the midterm elections. They say they believe they can get more traction stressing what they see as voters’ chief day-to-day concerns: inflation, crime and border security.

“Democrats are hoping they’ll be able to use this issue to get voters to forget they’re paying $4 for a gallon of gas and double what they’ve been paying at the grocery store and they’ll stop caring about violent crime and the open border,” a Republican strategist said, requesting anonymity to talk more freely. “But until I see polling showing that’s the case, I don’t buy it.”

Ann Selzer, a veteran Iowa-based pollster, noted that polling does show one trend — Americans support upholding Roe v. Wade.   

“There may be a majority of Supreme Court justices that seek or are attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade, but it’s not the majority of the American public,” Selzer said. She added, however, that historically those who oppose abortion rights are typically more successful at mobilizing voters to go to the polls.   

If the Supreme Court follows through and overturns Roe v. Wade, Democrats run the risk of overreaching in ways that would hurt their candidates in the fall, GOP strategists said. Adding more justices to the Supreme Court or passing new laws removing restrictions on abortion could boomerang in ways that help Republicans on the ballot, they added.  

“There’s a chance that Democrats could overstep the bounds here,” said another GOP strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk more openly.

Both parties hope the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion will rev up fundraising as voters see the real-life consequences of national elections. A strategist who regularly conducts focus groups with voters predicted that Democrats are better positioned for a windfall as a result of the leak. 

Fundraising “always benefits the party that needs to win,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump GOP strategist. “For a segment of the right, abortion goes away as a galvanizing issue. And now the left has a galvanizing issue. You take a galvanizing issue off the table” for Republicans and “you give it to the other side. I suspect that Planned Parenthood’s fundraising is going to be pretty robust.”

Adrienne Elrod, a longtime Democratic strategist, said: “It feels real. Millions of American women woke up this morning feeling nervous or scared for their children, their friends or anyone who has to go through this situation. And they’re ready to fight and do all they can to keep this from happening.”

Rallying Tuesday on Capitol Hill with about 40 Democratic senators, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York promised another vote, highlighted the stakes for the midterm elections and channeled the palpable anger at the pending Supreme Court decision. 

“To the American people, I say this: The elections this November will have consequences, because the rights of a hundred million women are now on the ballot,” Schumer said. “To help fight this court’s awful decision, I urge every American to make their voices heard this week and this year.”

Some liberals say it is essential to prevent the anger from morphing into depression and to remind voters that the party may control the White House and Congress but that it has slender majorities, which means codifying Roe requires electing more Democrats.

“We marched. We donated. We voted. We were the vast majority. And it didn’t matter,” progressive strategist Rebecca Katz said in a text message. “Democrats have to show voters that this fight isn’t over and abortion rights are on the ballot this November no matter what the Supreme Court does in June.”

Republican leaders ignored the substance of the Supreme Court opinion at a news conference. In a sign of GOP anxiety, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky repeatedly refused to comment on the substance of the draft, saying the story is “not a leaked draft but the fact that the draft was leaked.”