Texas’s new abortion law has scrambled the political landscape and forced both parties to recalibrate their strategies, as Republicans see their antiabortion agenda move closer to reality and Democrats fear one of their most deeply held principles is suddenly in jeopardy.
“I predict there will be a greater intensity on this issue,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent antiabortion group. “In the past, it’s all been planning for the distant future, for a day when it might happen. And in this election, we can say that moment is much closer.”
Dannenfelser conceded that voters who support abortion rights will also be energized. “They have everything to lose,” she said. “Their activity, of course, will be intense as well.”
Jennifer Palmieri, a Democratic strategist who served as Hillary Clinton’s communications director, said voters react forcefully to the threat of existing rights being taken away.
“Do I feel like it will be motivating? Yes, I do,” Palmieri said. “I’m totally freaked out. If I lived in Texas, I would just be filled with rage all day.” Referring to the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights case, she added: “For a long time we’ve said Roe is under threat. And now it’s being dismantled in front of our eyes.”
The law, which took effect this week, prohibits abortions in most cases after six weeks of pregnancy. In a 5-to-4 decision late Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to put a hold on the statute as it works its way through the courts.
That reverberated almost immediately in the political world. Hours after the Supreme Court action, Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and Pennsylvania sent fundraising appeals warning that abortion rights could be at risk in their states.
Abortion rights activists, meanwhile, renewed their efforts to press the Biden administration to embrace a host of new policies, including having Biden direct the Food and Drug Administration to remove barriers for drugs that can induce abortions and establishing a legal framework guaranteeing access abortions that go beyond Roe.
President Biden, however, is walking a careful line. He has sharply criticized the Texas law in written statements and ordered his staff to come up with a response plan, but he has not spoken on camera about the law or announced specific actions in response.
Dannenfelser said her group is already knocking on doors to motivate antiabortion voters in Georgia and Arizona, and they plan to begin shortly in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Those swing states all have either a hotly contested gubernatorial race or a senate race — or both — in 2022.
The Texas law has resonance even beyond its sharp restrictions on abortion. It relies on private citizens — not the state — to sue people who help women get forbidden abortions, creating what detractors call a vigilante system. And other states are moving quickly to pass similar legislation.
That is sending shock waves especially through contested states. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, quickly sent a series of messages to prospective supporters.
“If given the chance, a Republican Governor and Legislature in Pennsylvania would not hesitate to enact the same extreme, early-term abortion ban that Texas did,” his campaign said in one email.
Charlie Gerow, a Republican candidate for governor, took the opposite approach, saying that if the legislature put a Texas-like bill on his desk, he would “certainly sign it.”
“Most Pennsylvanians want restrictions on abortion,” Gerow said.
Virginia will pick a new governor this November, unlike most states whose elections are in even-numbered years. Cecile Richards, the former head of Planned Parenthood, sent a fundraising message on behalf of Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe on Thursday morning with the subject line, “It could happen in Virginia.”
Republicans have benefited in recent elections by stressing the impact of the Supreme Court, urging their voters to back less-than-perfect candidates by arguing that the court — and conservative social values — were on the ballot. In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign cemented support from wary conservatives by releasing a list of conservative jurists and scholars, and promising to choose his Supreme Court nominees from among them.
Democratic voters, in contrast, have seemed less motivated by abortion issues and judicial nominations. Some Democrats say the new real threat to abortion rights will change that.
“Unequivocally and emphatically, women’s health is on the ballot. Constitutional rights to reproductive freedom are on the ballot,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “The court has put this issue front-and-center before voters. It is a rushed, radical, overreaching decision that must be addressed in the election.”
Democratic strategists predict the Texas law will turn into a broader narrative that Republicans take women for granted.
“All I can say is their theme song, their electoral theme song, is going to be ‘American Woman,’ ” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster, reciting the lyrics to that 1970 anthem by the Guess Who: “American woman, get away from me. . . . Don’t come knocking around my door. I don’t wanna see your shadow no more.” The message to female voters, he said, is, “We don’t need you.”
Democratic women running in Senate elections next year said in interviews that the Supreme Court’s action was a wake-up call that women were already heeding.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who is facing challenges from several antiabortion Republicans, including former state attorney general Adam Laxalt, was quick to cast next year’s election as a referendum on abortion rights. “It matters who sits in this seat in this race,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind, if elected, [my Republican opponents] would support the conservative Supreme Court justices that would further undermine Roe v. Wade, and they would vote for federal legislation to restrict reproductive rights.”
Laxalt has described himself as an opponent of abortion and, as attorney general, signed briefs supporting restrictive abortion laws in other states. His campaign did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Val Arkoosh, a former obstetric anesthesiologist who is running in Pennsylvania, said that not only are abortion rights at risk but also in vitro fertilization and potentially birth control.
“Women in America should be very aware that their ability to decide what happens to their own bodies is at stake,” she said. “The consequences of this are horrific.”
But it’s unclear how much help these efforts will get from Biden. A Catholic, he has not made abortion a major issue, to the dismay of some abortion rights activists. One advocate, saying Biden has rarely even uttered the word, launched a website called DidBidenSayAbortionYet.org.
Biden did use the word in statements this week sharply condemning the Texas law and the Supreme Court action, however. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Americans should “look at what the president does and his actions and what he fights for.”
Psaki said Biden has asked his Cabinet secretaries to take a government-wide look at how the administration could push back against the Texas law. The effort is being coordinated by the Gender Policy Council, a group Biden created in the White House to focus on women’s rights.
But the president has not announced any particular action — and when he made public remarks Thursday, for example, on Hurricane Ida, he did not mention the Texas law. Psaki, meanwhile, could not say whether Biden backs the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill in Congress to create a statutory right for health-care professionals to provide abortions.
“I think he’s a very reluctant advocate,” Dannenfelser said. “The White House is going to stay in a defensive posture, and it’s going be tough for them in midterms because of the defensive posture that they’re in.”
Biden has taken some steps on abortion that activists support, including rescinding a gag rule that withheld federal funding from international nonprofits that provide abortion counseling or referrals. His budget proposal also would erase restrictions on funding abortions via federal programs such as Medicaid. And he’s stocked his administration with abortion rights staff in key roles, advocates say.
One challenge for Biden, and Democrats more broadly, is that while abortion rights have strong support in the cities and many suburban areas, they are strongly opposed in the rural stretches of swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Still, Palmieri said Biden does not necessarily need to lead the charge for Democrats to be motivated.
“This is not a small issue that needs a lot of elevation in order to be understood or get attention,” Palmerie said. “It’s a fundamental right that has been taken away in the second-largest state in the country.”
State-level Democrats are not counting on the White House to act and are developing their own approach that does not rely on federal aid.
“The federal government is not coming to save us,” said Heather Williams, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “For a really long time, the defeat of Roe was treated as a hypothetical. It was hard for people to wrap their heads around. It is abundantly clear that is no longer the case.”
But if national Democrats have shown some reluctance to focus too intently on abortion, Republican leaders are also showing some hesitation on the issue, potentially concerned that swing voters may be turned off by an overly aggressive attack on abortion rights.
Neither Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nor House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had issued any statements on the Texas law by late Thursday afternoon.
Glenn Youngkin, the GOP nominee for Virginia governor, asked at an event Wednesday about the Texas law, did not directly say whether he supports it.
And Rich Anderson, who chairs the Republican Party of Virginia, said the election will not turn on abortion in any case.
“The issues on the top of voters’ minds are the quality of their children’s education, the safety of their neighborhoods, and the future of their stalled economy,” Anderson said.
What to know about the Texas abortion law
The latest: The Supreme Court on Dec. 10 left in place Texas’s six-week abortion ban and provided only a narrow path for providers to challenge the law in federal court.