For Joshua Hon, the prospect of another open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court was the moment he has been waiting for since voting for President Donald Trump four years ago.
“I would not say that I love Trump, but I do believe that abortion is killing babies,” said Hon, 35, who lives in Durham County in North Carolina.
Hundreds of miles north, in the Cincinnati suburbs, Julie Womack’s phone has not stopped ringing, flooded with panicked messages from female friends who were worried that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death could mean the end of a right they believed was inviolable.
“We have to be even louder and more vocal, and stand up and take her place,” said Womack, 52, who fiercely supports abortion rights and opposes Trump.
For months, abortion has been relegated to the back burner in the presidential campaign, eclipsed by a worldwide pandemic, an economic crisis and protests over racial justice. But the death of Ginsburg and the looming confirmation battle to replace her could force the candidates to discuss a volatile issue six weeks before Election Day that carries significant political risks for both sides, even as it energizes portions of their bases.
Mainstream views on abortion are more moderate than those of the activists on either wing, with most Americans saying that abortions should be legal with some restrictions. An all-out fight over abortion could further alienate the more moderate suburban voters both sides are competing for. Democrats especially must navigate their own divisions over how far to push an issue that Democratic candidate Joe Biden has long found personally uncomfortable.
Since Ginsburg’s death Friday, Trump and Biden have so far tread lightly on the subject. The Biden campaign is trying to steer the conversation to the less politically treacherous terrain of protecting the Affordable Care Act and its popular guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Trump has focused on his right to appoint a justice so close to the end of his term.
But there is pressure on both candidates to address the abortion issue, because of its significance to their respective bases at a moment when so much is at stake. During Trump’s presidency, it has become harder to get an abortion in many places across the country than at any time since the procedure was legalized nearly 50 years ago. Five states now have only one remaining abortion clinic each: Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia.
Socially conservative strategists see the sudden emergence of the abortion issue as an important opportunity for Trump, who has lagged in the polls. They believe it may help shore up Republican swing voters in Arizona, or motivate base voters who might not have gotten around to requesting an absentee ballot.
“This alters the political landscape in a very significant way,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “This will take the focus off the coronavirus; this will take the focus off a lot of things.”
Traditionally, abortion has served as a powerful source of political motivation for social conservatives, many of whom are single-issue voters who see the issue as nonnegotiable. But some Democrats believe the political balance has shifted, pointing to the outcry against the deluge of restrictive new laws passed by Republican state legislatures last year and the emergence of female voters as the backbone of the opposition to Trump.
This was especially evident during the 2018 midterms, when suburban women voters in key swing districts helped give Democrats control of the House. This year, the fate of the Senate rests on purple states such as Colorado, North Carolina, Maine and Arizona where abortion politics could favor Democrats.
Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion rights organization Naral Pro-Choice America, said Democratic and independent female voters view abortion primarily as an essential health service, but they also see the issue as emblematic of the broader losses of the last four years.
“It’s also a really important symbol of women’s place in society at a time now when women feel like we are being attacked and denigrated,” she said. “If you are looking at this activated base of women who were already politically engaged, I do see this new fervor.”
For social conservatives, the appointment of a sixth conservative justice to the Supreme Court is the culmination of a decades-old project to dismantle Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
In a six-month period last year, states across the South and Midwest passed 58 abortion restrictions, including criminalizing abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, a time before many women are aware they are pregnant. For the left, newly awakened in the Trump era, a strong conservative majority on the court could end the constitutional right to an abortion, which for activists could be the most painful consequence of an administration they believe has disparaged and disempowered women.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion political group, said the opportunity felt like the election of 2016 again, when the Supreme Court and abortion became paramount issues and helped win over conservatives who had misgivings. Four years ago, a majority of those who backed Trump said that Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their vote, according to exit polls.
“The abortion issue, once it is raised, it really sets the base on fire,” said Dannenfelser. “This being hoisted up the flagpole means we don’t have to dig out the argument and help them remember it.”
Less than a day after Ginsburg’s death, the Susan B. Anthony List had added an additional $500,000 to its spending on grassroots mobilization specifically concerning the court, on top of the $52 million it had already allocated for the election cycle. The group has made door-knocking in Arizona, Florida and North Carolina a priority; this month, it increased its voter outreach target in battleground states to 7 million people from 4 million. Concerned Women for America, which also opposes abortion rights, began planning to bring local state leaders to Washington to meet with senators who are waffling on whether to confirm a justice this close to an election.
Planned Parenthood, the largest reproductive rights organization in the country, is reassessing its strategy to fight a two-front war: pushing for Biden and Democratic candidates in key states, and pressing Republican senators to hold off on a confirmation vote until a new president is elected. The group is planning to run a new round of political ads.
“People are fired up — they’re in front of the court, they’re rallying, they’re holding vigils,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood. “All of the tools are coming out to play in this fight, not only to prevent this nomination from happening but also around the election.”
Susan Polakoff Shaw, a Democrat in the Cleveland suburbs, said she plans to attend a local vigil for Ginsburg this week.
“I think it has ignited us even more,” said Shaw, 60, who plans to increase her organizing on behalf of Biden. “I’m mad that we put so much on her tiny little shoulders for so long. She was all we had to protect us from becoming this patriarchal backward country.”
Public opinion on abortion is far more nuanced than the political rhetoric surrounding the issue. While Americans’ views on the issue are notoriously difficult to gauge in polls, because so much depends on how the question is asked, those views have remained relatively consistent since 1975. A majority believe abortion should be legal, but generally not after a certain point in pregnancy, according to Gallup’s long-running tracking poll on the issue.
The number of voters who insist that candidates agree with them on the issue has remained stable since 2012. About 26 percent of Republicans say a candidate must share their views on abortion to get their vote, and 27 percent of Democrats say the same, according to polling conducted by Gallup in May.
Biden has struggled to reconcile his religious views as a practicing Catholic with the views of his party, which has embraced an abortion rights platform with far fewer restrictions than at any time in its political history. Last year, Biden reversed his decades-old support for the Hyde amendment, a measure banning federal funding for most abortions.
On Sunday, Biden delivered remarks on the Supreme Court in Philadelphia, making no mention of abortion rights.
For activists on both sides of the issue, it may be difficult for abortion to break through with the public in a year with a long list of other concerns. Over the summer, about two-thirds of registered voters said Supreme Court appointments were “very important” to their vote in the November election, ahead of the coronavirus pandemic but behind the economy and health care, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Shannon Barnett, 48, an evangelical Christian who lives about 45 minutes southeast of Phoenix and plans to vote for Trump, said she was worried about unrest and violent protests.
Voters like Barnett could carry outsized importance in the court battle, because the winner of the state’s special Senate election, to fill the last two years of John McCain’s term, would most likely be seated almost immediately, and not in January as senators ordinarily are. A Democratic victory in that race could limit Republicans’ ability to confirm a justice in the lame-duck session.
“Honestly, I’ve always been pro-life, and that is important to me,” Barnett said. “But I think there are so many other disastrous things going on in the country, that those have to take priority right now.”
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