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Stuart Rothenberg: Will the Supreme Court save the GOP from itself on abortion?

Stuart Rothenberg, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Op Eds

Social conservatives cheering the rash of state laws limiting legal abortion might want to be careful what they wish for.

That's because Democratic prospects for 2020 are likely to improve as uncertainty about the future of Roe v. Wade grows. And uncertainty will grow as more and more states impose restrictions on legal abortion.

Republicans need a net gain of 18 or 19 seats to win back the House -- a difficult task but certainly not an impossible one. And the party can lose a net of three Senate seats (if they keep the White House) and still maintain control of the chamber in 2021.

But magnifying the debate over abortion rights could well put the House out of reach next year for the GOP, put the Senate at much greater risk and further undermine President Donald Trump's already iffy re-election prospects.

Democrats' successes in 2018 were built on two very different groups -- core party supporters, including progressives, minorities and younger Americans; and swing voters, including college-educated whites (especially college-educated white women), who have often been attracted by the GOP's stances on taxes, spending and business regulation.

Both sets of voters turned out for Democratic House candidates last fall, which is why Democrats gained a net of 40 seats in the chamber.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the same two groups are likely to be motivated by the abortion issue in 2020.

Women went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 13 points in 2016, 54% to 41 percent, largely on the basis of her strength among non-whites. Two years later, the national House exit poll showed Democrats carrying women by an even larger 19 points, 59% to 40 percent.

Trump actually carried white women comfortably by 9 points in 2016, 52% to 43 percent. Two years later, white women split evenly, 49% to 49 percent, wiping out the president's advantage.

College-educated white women went for Clinton in 2016 by a relatively narrow 7 points, 51% to 44 percent. But two years later, Democrats won white women with a college degree by an overwhelming 20 points, 59% to 39 percent.

The Democratic surge among college-educated white women was unmistakable, and it did not occur by chance.

White women in general, and college-educated white women in particular, came to dislike Trump's style and language, as well as elements of his agenda.

Now, with the economy generally strong and swing voters free to think about things other than jobs and interest rates, college-educated women who supported Trump in 2016 but voted Democratic two years later will again feel free to send a message about culture and values, not taxes and government regulation.

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Obviously, a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would further elevate abortion as a defining issue in 2020, giving more energy to the abortion rights movement.

Conversely, a Supreme Court decision reaffirming Roe and rejecting the constitutionality of the kind of restrictions on abortion that states are now imposing might actually breed complacency among those who support abortion rights.

But it's unclear when or whether the nation's highest court will deal with new state restrictions on abortion before next year's general election. Given that, supporters of abortion rights are likely to focus on the more "extreme" proposals that seek to circumscribe Roe, just as critics of Roe -- including the folks at LifeNews.com -- have often portrayed abortion rights activists as supporting infanticide.

The problem for Republicans is that they are likely to go into the 2020 election dragged down by an issue on which they are too easily portrayed as extreme and insensitive to women.

Yes, they will have their arguments assembled as to why that is not the case, but the bigger the issue becomes, the more likely 2020 becomes a fight over culture and values that benefits Democrats, not the party of white evangelicals and white men without a college degree.

Historically, Republicans have benefited from abortion because of the intensity of the support from those who oppose legal abortion. Even though polls generally show more voters back abortion rights, those people don't vote on the issue, as is illustrated by polling on abortion and Roe v. Wade by Gallup.

The increased salience of abortion as a voting cue is likely to benefit Democrats because it will energize voters who favor abortion rights but have assumed up to now that they are not under serious attack.

The greatest danger for Democrats is that a John Roberts-led Supreme Courts reaffirms Roe and looks unkindly on state restrictions intended to dramatically limit, or eliminate, legal abortion in some states.

That would be a loss on public policy for Republicans going into 2020, but it would be the better electoral outcome for the party.

(c)2019 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved

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