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How overturning Roe v. Wade could backfire for Republicans

Abortion-rights protesters rallied in New York due to a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion on the landmark case Roe v. Wade that revealed the possible reversal of that pivotal decision in the issue of abortion. Experts said Roe's reversal may push Republican women voters to vote in favor of the Democrats, alienated by the GOP's push against abortion.HILARY SWIFT/NYT

ATLANTA — For months, Republicans have been poised to make inroads in the diverse and economically comfortable suburbs of cities like Atlanta. The moderate communities here swung toward Democrats in recent years, led by women appalled by Donald Trump. But lately, rampant inflation and rising crime have taken a political toll on President Biden and his party.

Sandra Sloan, 82, is the kind of voter Republicans are counting on to help them reclaim this contested section of a newly purple state. Yet Sloan, a retired high school teacher who lives in Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead neighborhood, is uneasy about the party for one main reason.

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“I am a Republican, but I still believe that it’s a woman’s right to choose,” Sloan said.

Sloan said she had followed the news recently about a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade, as well as the passage of antiabortion legislation in states like Texas and Oklahoma. She said she was not sure how she would ultimately vote in the fall, but abortion rights would be a factor.

“We still don’t know, after the draft, when it’s finished what it will say,” Sloan said. “But leaving it to just men — I’m sorry, no.”

It is voters like Sloan, in communities like Buckhead, who may represent the greatest challenge for Republicans in a renewed national debate over the rights of women to legally terminate a pregnancy.

Should the Supreme Court strike down Roe in the sweeping manner of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion, it would unleash a ferocious state-by-state battle over abortion regulations — and introduce a powerful new issue into the calculus of voters who might otherwise be inclined to treat the midterm election as an up-or-down vote on Biden’s performance. Moderate women who have tilted back toward the Republicans might now have second thoughts; young people who feel let down by Biden could well find motivation to vote Democratic out of a feeling of fear and indignation about the Supreme Court.

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The urgency of the abortion issue could be particularly intense in Georgia, where state lawmakers in 2019 passed a ban on abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, knowing at the time that existing Supreme Court precedent would forbid the law from going into effect. If that precedent is overturned, then Georgia voters could find themselves living under one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country.

National Democrats have indicated they intend to campaign on the issue before the midterms in November. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats voted to provide a broad guarantee of abortion rights nationwide, although they knew the bill lacked enough support to overcome Republican opposition.

Many Republicans, however, are hesitant to discuss abortion outright. On the campaign trail, Republican candidates have been encouraged by party leaders to focus on the economy, crime, and the border, according to a memo from the National Republican Senatorial Committee obtained by Axios.

State Senator Jen Jordan, a Democrat running for attorney general of Georgia, said she expected the abortion rights issue to eclipse other concerns as a top consideration for voters.

Previously, Jordan said she had been campaigning on issues related to the cost of living, vowing to crack down on price gouging. The leaked Supreme Court opinion “completely changed the conversation,” she said.

“I think fundamental rights is a little bit above the day-to-day economic issues that have been batted around,” Jordan said.

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In closely divided states and congressional districts around the country, many moderate voters suddenly find themselves choosing between a Democratic Party that has disappointed them since taking power in 2021, and a Republican Party newly emboldened to enact a right-wing social agenda that makes many voters deeply uneasy.

That could create a major challenge for Republicans in their efforts to win back the centrist and center-right communities that shunned them during the Trump years and turned America’s suburbs — from areas near Atlanta and Philadelphia to Minneapolis and Salt Lake City — into at least a temporary political desert for the party. That exodus was particularly pronounced among centrist and even Republican-leaning white women, a constituency that tends to favor abortion rights with modest limitations.

Christine Matthews, a pollster who has studied the abortion issue and worked in the past for Republicans, said she expected abortion rights to become a top concern of the 2022 elections. But she said it was too soon to gauge how voters would prioritize abortion rights as an issue relative to other close-to-home considerations, like the cost and availability of consumer goods.

“We’ve never been in a situation like this,” Matthews said, adding, “We are in a situation where abortion rights are now being threatened in a way they haven’t been in nearly 50 years.”