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Texas law could flip script on abortion politics, with Democrats eyeing gains

From Virginia to California, Democrats are seizing on an issue that once divided their party, while the new politics is "more dangerous for Republicans."
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WASHINGTON — Virginia was once at the forefront of anti-abortion efforts, going to the Supreme Court to defend its right to prosecute a newspaper publisher for running an ad promoting abortion.

But today, Democrats are betting that voters in the modern-day Old Dominion will keep them in the governor's office to defend abortion rights after the Supreme Court tipped its hand on the hot-button issue Wednesday.

From Virginia to California, Democrats are trying to motivate voters as the expanded conservative majority on the court inches closer to limiting or overturning the right to terminate a pregnancy for the first time in nearly half a century. It is a glimpse into America’s shifting politics on abortion, which have typically energized conservatives more.

Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and the former governor of Virginia who is running for a second term, was already airing TV ads about abortion before the court allowed Texas’ strict new law, which bans abortion after six weeks, to go into effect Wednesday. (Virginia bars governors from serving consecutive terms.)

And now, he says the imminent threat to Roe v. Wade will help motivate Democrats to show up in November and return him to office to ensure that abortions remain legal.

“People have been talking about the end of abortion for years and years. Now it's actually happening,” McAuliffe said. “That will get people to come out in droves. It will really motivate folks.”

Democrats in Washington, who face stiff headwinds in defending their majorities in Congress in next year’s elections, see a new opportunity to motivate voters who may have taken abortion rights for granted.

And Republicans are dealing with an unsettling new political landscape after having promised to outlaw abortions for decades to motivate their base.

Joshua Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Denver, said Republicans have had a “safe space” for years, because their vow to outlaw abortion was seen as an empty promise by both the left and the right as a result of the support for legal abortion during the previous Supreme Court regime.

Now, that safe space is gone.

“Under Trump, the Supreme Court context changed dramatically. So suddenly you’re in this context where the court might roll back abortion rights,” Wilson said. “That makes the politics more dangerous for Republicans.”

‘The reason I’m running’

The sprawling growth of Virginia’s northern suburbs has turned the state into reliable Democratic turf. The departing governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, signed a law last year making Virginia the first state in the South to proactively defend abortion rights in case Roe is overturned.

McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, businessman Glenn Youngkin, was secretly recorded telling a person who had asked him to “take it to the abortionists” that his hands are tied by the politics.

Youngkin appeared to acknowledge that he would lose support in Virginia if he promised to attack abortion rights.

“I’m going to be really honest with you. The short answer is in this campaign, I can’t,” Youngkin said in the video, which was first aired on MSNBC. "When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

Youngkin has mostly steered clear of abortion unless he is asked, when he has said he opposes abortion rights but believes there should be exceptions for rape and incest and when the life of the woman is at risk — exceptions not in Texas’ new law.

“I’m pro-life,” Youngkin told reporters Wednesday, “but I’m most focused on making sure Terry McAuliffe’s extreme agenda ... is not part of Virginia’s future.”

Youngkin released a digital ad in response to McAuliffe's TV spots, saying that McAuliffe is “too extreme” because he supports “taxpayer funded abortions” and that he wouldn’t veto an abortion rights bill that would have allowed late-term abortions. But otherwise, Youngkin hasn’t discussed abortion on social media since he won the GOP primary.

Anti-abortion activists kneel down and pray as they surround abortion rights activist Luanne Smith of Burke, Va., during the annual "March for Life" in Washington on Jan. 22, 2010.
Anti-abortion activists kneel and pray as they surround an abortion rights activist during the annual March for Life in Washington on Jan. 22, 2010.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

In California, Republican Larry Elder — who has spent decades as a radio host known for gleefully pushing every hot button in politics — is keeping his distance from abortion politics as he campaigns to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in next month’s recall election.

The recall election in the country’s most famous bastion of liberalism is a test case of Democrats’ ability to juice their base turnout when former President Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot, and issues like abortion or Covid restrictions are their formula to try to do so.

Asked about abortion by NBC News at a news conference Wednesday, Elder said that while he opposes it, the issue isn’t a “priority," saying the Democratic supermajority in the Legislature would never pass abortion restrictions no matter who is governor.

“Before Roe v. Wade in California, abortion was pretty much available on demand. And in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will still be available pretty much on demand here in California,” Elder said. “The reason I’m running has nothing to do with Roe v. Wade.”

‘Shake up the midterms’

In Congress, Democratic lawmakers were once divided, with more rural members opposing abortion rights. But now, the party is largely unified, the product of defeats in rural areas and the loss of the support of white voters who didn’t go to college — voters who mostly still oppose abortion.

Democrats’ new majority is due to well-educated voters who tend to hold more socially liberal views.

A recent NBC News poll found that 54 percent of Americans want abortion to be mostly legal, while 42 percent want it to be mostly illegal. And the regional disparities are stark: Urban voters want abortion to be legal by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, and rural voters want it to be illegal by a 2-to-1 ratio.

In the suburbs, where control of Congress is likely to be decided, 54 percent of voters say abortion should be legal, compared to 42 percent who say it should be illegal, the poll found. College-educated white voters favor abortion rights by 60 percent to 37 percent.

“The Democrats need things to shake up the midterms in order to buck a lot of historical trends working against them. This could certainly be that,” said former House campaign operative Tyler Law, a Democratic consultant, who posited that abortion rights could “halt gains Republicans hope to make in higher-educated, suburban areas.”

Democrats’ Senate campaign arm said the Supreme Court’s tacit approval of Texas’ law is “a powerful reminder of the stakes in next year’s election — and why we must defend a Democratic Senate majority with the power to confirm or reject Supreme Court justices.”

The chair of the House Democratic campaign committee, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, vowed to fight “from now until Election Day to make sure that the House Republicans who are coming for reproductive rights lose their seats in 2022.”

Democrats hear Texas abortion restrictions as a rallying cry for the left. Meanwhile, the GOP’s House and Senate campaign committees didn’t weigh in on the Texas law or the court’s quiet greenlighting of it Wednesday.

Republican strategist Matt Gorman, who was communications director for the party’s House campaign arm in 2018, said it’s “too early to tell” what the issue means for 2022 races.

“There’s a chance it fades and is a peripheral issue. There’s a chance it animates women and liberals,” he said. “The key is that Republicans will be asked their stance and whether they agree or disagree. They need to be ready.”

And Republicans are looking to recapture the suburbs after having watched them drift away during Trump’s presidency.

“The state politics matter greatly for the future of abortion rights,” said Wilson, the political scientist. “Because if the Supreme Court begins to erode or dismantle abortion protections in a meaningful way, then that just puts more pressure on to the states to act.”