Dobbs ruling keeps abortion backers energized as opponents grasp for messaging

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision two years ago jolted awake Democrats and reproductive rights activists, with the seismic changes made possible by the Supreme Court’s action offering motivation in an instant.

The ruling immediately flipped the fight to the other side, galvanizing abortion rights supporters and making it a driving election issue. And since then, the anti-abortion movement has struggled with a new reality for which it may have been unprepared — the public is largely supportive of abortion rights and opposes significant efforts to ban or restrict the procedure.

“It’s setting the agenda up and down the ticket. Because it’s such a clear contrast, and voters think they can really sort it out,” said Celinda Lake, one of the Biden campaign’s lead pollsters in 2020. “It’s a yes or no issue.”

At the same time, the Republican Party has struggled to coalesce around a messaging strategy to describe its next steps.

“There are some disagreements that I see in the anti-abortion space, but what I know is that they have been very clear about their wanting to end abortion access … their disagreement is how they get there,” said Nourbese Flint, president of abortion rights group All Above All.

“So I wouldn’t categorize it as disarray. I would categorize it as they’re trying to figure out how to message,” Flint said.

Abortion rights activists said they feel more organized now, with much larger groups of supporters than those seen prior to Dobbs.

Many said they had tried to sound the alarm about coordinated conservative efforts to bring down Roe v. Wade, but some admitted they got complacent.

“I think you know, one of the things that we’ve thought about post-Dobbs decision, post-Roe, is how we didn’t have maybe the best strategy to absorb people who were interested in the issue, and to activate them when we didn’t have a crisis,” said Lupe M. Rodriguez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

Reproductive rights advocates argue that they’ve put in the work to learn how to keep voters engaged in every post-Roe election, with hopes that 2024 will be no different.

“We’ve learned a lot about how to work with folks longer term, to really sort of find ways to engage people on these issues,” Rodriguez said.

On the flip side, anti-abortion activists are finding their priorities set aside by the same politicians they’ve long supported and influenced. For political expediency, the Republican Party has concluded harsh anti-abortion policies are hurting candidates in key races.

GOP lawmakers and candidates, including former President Trump, now say abortion decisions should be left to the states — a stark departure from previous efforts to regulate it at the federal level.

Anti-abortion groups have said they are disappointed with that rhetoric but remain committed to helping elect Republicans.

One of the most powerful of those groups, SBA Pro-Life America, wants to spend at least $92 million to reach 10 million voters in battleground states this cycle. Their message: Democrats want to repeal abortion bans and pass laws guaranteeing abortion access at any stage in pregnancy.

After a surprising number of Democratic victories from candidates running on abortion in the 2022 midterm election, Republicans in 2024 have had to choose between doubling down on restrictions or backing away from the issue.

To be sure, GOP voters rank abortion much lower on their priority list than inflation, crime and immigration.

Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said abortion has done better when it’s a stand-alone ballot issue rather than when it’s been used as an attack against a popular GOP candidate.

For example, five statewide ballot measures in 2022 all came out in favor of abortion rights, even in red states like Kentucky and Montana. But conservative anti-abortion governors in Ohio and Georgia also won.

“I think [abortion] is an important and potent issue for Democrats. But it’s simply not a single issue that will drive massive vote choice — it’ll affect it, but not be determinative,” Franklin said.

Democrats want to keep up the pressure on Republicans and build on their success from 2022.

In the wake of restrictive abortion laws in states like Arizona, Alabama and Florida, Democrats have been unified in their message. The laws were passed by Republicans and were only possible because Trump’s nominated Supreme Court justices overturned Roe v. Wade.

Abortion access is now made up of a patchwork of state laws and court decisions, and nearly two dozen states have bans or restrictions in place. Abortion supporters want to tie the experiences of women in those states squarely to Republicans.

“Every time I feel like this issue may be fading, we hear another story of how it’s affecting people’s lives and their health and their ability to have a healthy pregnancy,” said Cecile Richards, a former president of Planned Parenthood and co-chair of the liberal super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. “The Republicans have an unsustainable, unsupportable position on these issues, and I think they’re going to be held to account.”

In the Senate, Democrats are working to highlight Republican opposition to reproductive rights by holding votes on issues like in vitro fertilization (IVF), contraception access and abortion rights.

“They’re trying to remind everyone where the parties stand, and that has been largely viewed as a Democratic strength and not ground that Republicans prefer to play on right now, because there’s so many other issues that we’re ahead on, such as the economy, immigration, foreign policy, energy,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, co-founder of ROKK Solutions.

Senate Republicans attempted to pass a bill earlier this month, which was blocked by Democrats, that would create an incentive for politicians not to pass legislation banning IVF but wouldn’t stop a court from restricting the procedure.

Senate Republicans also signed a pledge saying they “strongly support” continued nationwide access to IVF, despite GOP efforts in states like Alabama to block it.

Democrats argue that they are going into November unified on their abortion rights messaging.

“Everywhere from six-week abortion bans to IVF — Republicans are all over the place, they can’t really seem to settle on anything particularly that satisfies all corners. Therein lies where Democrats have been unified on this issue and maintaining reproductive rights for women and the right to choose,” said former Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.).

He added, “when it comes to hard-core belief in terms of what draws voters out, this is one of those issues that year after year has done that.”

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