The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats in tight races are betting on Dobbs blowback. It might pay off.

Abortion rights supporters at an election watch party in Overland Park, Kan., on Aug. 2. (Evert Nelson/AP)

Democrats in swing districts and toss-up states have been leaning into the abortion issue, making the case that forced pregnancy and birth laws are too extreme for their voters. It might just work.

In Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, rated as a toss-up, incumbent and staunch forced-birth zealot Rep. Don Bacon (R) has sided with extremists in his party. He cheered the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and argues that fetuses should be protected from conception. He also voted against a House measure to protect women’s right to travel to another state to seek an abortion, which his opponent, state Sen. Tony Vargas, argues is proof that Bacon gets “more extreme by the day.”

Kansas’s recent vote to protect abortion rights has emboldened Democrats in Nebraska to press on the issue. Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, recently told local media that the message from Kansas’s vote “is loud and clear to the national party and to national donors that red states are worth investing in.”

An American Civil Liberties Union poll released before the Dobbs decision showed 55 percent of Nebraskans opposed a legislative trigger to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade was reversed. Following the Kansas vote, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) refused to call his state’s legislature into session to consider more stringent anti-choice measures because he lacked the votes to pass new forced-birth laws, another sign that even in red Nebraska it may not be a winning issue.

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Vargas in a phone interview tells me that the Kansas ballot measure reaffirmed that abortion would be a top issue in the campaign. The question, he says, is whether the candidate that Nebraskans vote for “is going to fight for your privacy.” He labels the zeal for more abortion laws “government overreach.”

Meanwhile, abortion is at the top of the list of issues in blue states. Incumbent New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski (D) will face Republican Tom Kean Jr. in the state’s 7th Congressional District, rated as “lean Republican.” Kean has appealed to the MAGA crowd, but he also bills himself as pro-choice. Since he won his primary race, he’s remained tight-lipped on the issue. His diffidence suggests he likely won’t do much to buck his rabid anti-choice party.

That’s given Malinowski an opening. After the Kansas vote, Malinowski tweeted, “Kansas voters reminded us yesterday just how radical and out of touch the GOP has become on abortion. But one referendum will not protect women elsewhere whose health and lives will remain endangered for the next few months. Voters across America will fix that in November.” And if Kean’s party is in the majority, it will almost certainly seek a vote for a nationwide ban.

“It will be a big issue in my race,” Malinowski tells me. “My district leans slightly Republican but is overwhelmingly against the government criminalizing personal decisions regarding pregnancy and marriage.” He adds, “Kean Jr. has lamely claimed to be ‘pro-choice with restrictions,’ but when New Jersey’s legislature codified Roe this January, he voted no. This was one of his last votes as a state senator and it will hurt him this November.” Malinowski adds, “New Jerseyans understand that our law will not be safe if Republicans regain power in Washington and pass a nationwide ban, as they’ve promised to do.” In a race as close as this in an overwhelmingly pro-choice state, abortion may be the decisive issue.

Whether in red or blue states, Democrats sense that voters are with them when it comes to their opposition to forced pregnancy. When they talk to voters, the blowback against Dobbs is palpable. It would be ironic if the most partisan Supreme Court majority in memory handed Democrats a political lifeline by shredding nearly 50 years of constitutional precedent and demolishing women’s rights.