California Democrats lean into abortion rights as ‘defining issue’
Gov. Gavin Newsom and other California Democrats are counting on abortion rights to drive their voters to the polls. But some may still care more about crime, homelessness and inflation.
When a draft Supreme Court ruling that would overturn the constitutional right to abortion leaked Monday night, Democratic leaders in California reacted swiftly with shock, grief and fury.
It didn’t take long for the personal devastation to turn political.
By Wednesday morning, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for re-election this year, had already cut a new campaign ad about “reproductive freedom under attack.” In a tweet unveiling the ad, he framed defeating “anti-choice Republicans” as the “defining issue of the 2022 election.”
As the stark reality has sunk in that the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is unlikely to make it to its 50th birthday, many Democrats are leaning forcefully into abortion rights as a key election issue. With decades of public polling indicating that a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, it could be the party’s most potent counterweight in a campaign cycle in which Republicans seem poised to capitalize on voter frustration over inflation and crime.
“Don’t think for a second this is where they stop,” Newsom said Wednesday outside Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, where he raised the alarm that conservatives would also seek to roll back other rights such as same-sex marriage. “Pay attention, America. They’re coming after you next.”
In his remarks, Newsom called for a stronger Democratic counteroffensive on protecting abortion. He slammed Republicans for claiming to be pro-life while opposing policies to provide more support to women and families after a baby is born, previewing a political attack that could soon be coming to swing districts across the country.
“That’s how extreme the Republican Party is in the United States of America. You want extremism? Rape and incest, they don’t even make an exception,” Newsom said. “Wake up, America. Wake up to who you’re electing.”
Democrats, weighed down by sagging approval ratings for President Joe Biden and in danger of losing control of Congress in the November midterm election, have been struggling to find a message that might motivate liberal voters to show up to the polls and persuade moderates to stick with their governance.
Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said the reality of a Supreme Court ruling against abortion rights could provide a significant boost. Though warnings about that potential outcome have not historically driven turnout for Democrats while the Roe decision withstood decades of attacks, Pitney said voters are much more alert to loss.
“The issue has moved from the realm of the hypothetical to the realm of the real,” he said.
And it could remain near the top of the news through the rest of the year, with the official opinion expected this summer and then potentially dozens of states passing new abortion restrictions after that.
“It’s kind of like a wildfire, and the burning embers and debris will spread over the electorate for months to come,” Pitney said.
Still, it is uncertain how much of a difference abortion can make for Democrats, who are facing significant political headwinds nationally from pocketbook issues such as spiraling inflation and high gas prices.
While probably not potent enough to shift the balance of power, Pitney said abortion could move the margins in close races with national implications, such as the contests for U.S. Senate in Georgia and Wisconsin. Some Republicans are already planning to push for a nationwide abortion ban should the GOP win complete control of the federal government in the next few years. The ruling, Pitney added, might also help Democrats regain some ground with young voters, who have particularly soured on Biden.
There is probably less of a potential impact in California, where Democrats have nearly maximized their power at every level of government.
Beth Miller, a Republican political consultant, said Californians who are motivated by abortion rights are already quite engaged politically. She is skeptical that it will bring new or infrequent voters the the polls, especially when abortion access is not under immediate threat here.
“The overriding issue in California is the cost of living,” Miller said.
But California Democrats are quickly elevating abortion to the forefront of their messaging anyway, with some even fundraising off the news that Roe v. Wade may be overturned. More than 70% of Californians oppose repealing the ruling, according to a poll this year by the Public Policy Institute of California.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.