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Roe’s fall pushes abortion to center of the midterms: ‘This is an eight-alarm fire’

Mitzi Rivas, left, hugs her daughter Maya Iribarren during an abortion-rights protest at City Hall in San Francisco following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on Friday.Josie Lepe/Associated Press

In overturning the nearly 50-year-old right of women to choose an abortion, Justice Samuel Alito on Friday declared it time to “return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

With four months to go before voters return to the ballot box to choose them, Democrats are hoping to turn that idea — and the abrupt erasure of a precedent relied on by millions of women — into a rallying cry for their weary base, depicting this fall’s midterm elections as voters’ chance to shore up abortion rights and warning that other freedoms could hang in the balance if Republicans prevail.

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“Because of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party, and their supermajority on the Supreme Court, American women today have less freedom than their mothers,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, promising her party would fight “ferociously” to enshrine Roe v. Wade into law just weeks after an effort to do so failed in the Senate. “Make no mistake: The rights of women and all Americans are on the ballot this November.”

The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which Chief Justice John Roberts described as “a serious jolt to the legal system,” is likely to also disrupt the nation’s political landscape, putting a long-settled issue front and center in key contests across the country. The culmination of a decades-long effort by the religious right to erode abortion rights, it is both a reminder of the long reach of the single-term presidency of Donald J. Trump, who appointed three of the five conservative justices who voted to overturn Roe, and sets the stage for Republican efforts to ban or further curtail the procedure from coast to coast.

“We must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land,” said former vice president Mike Pence, who is widely seen as likely to run for president in 2024.

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Democrats seized on such rhetoric — as well as a line from Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion suggesting that cases allowing gay marriage, same-sex intimacy, and the use of contraceptives should also be revisited — to inject new urgency into midterm campaigns that so far have been defined by anger at persistent inflation and President Biden’s lagging approval ratings, leaving Democrats feeling gloomy about their prospects. Banning abortion nationwide is deeply unpopular; Republicans on the ballot in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Wisconsin also want abortion restrictions that are out of step with the electorates in their states.

“They are moving toward ending abortion access everywhere in America,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, in an interview in which she accused Republicans of wanting to take the country back to the 1800s. “They’re coming for everyone else who doesn’t behave in just the way that a handful of extremists on the court believes they should behave.”

“This is an eight-alarm fire,” she added. “We should make this a key part of the election.”

Republicans are downplaying the decision as an election issue, saying voters will be much more concerned with sky-high gas prices and other economic concerns. And there’s also the danger that the conservative Supreme Court’s aggressive moves on abortion and gun rights could confer a sense of powerlessness among voters who oppose those decisions, given that a Democratically-controlled White House and Congress have been unable to stop them — a perception Democrats are already moving to fight.

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“There is a huge amount that we can do. And we need to be doing all of it,” Warren said, calling for executive actions by President Biden and for Democrats to elect senators who would do away with the filibuster and codify abortion rights.

The court has rarely taken away a right once it is conferred, making the political impact of Friday’s history-shifting ruling difficult to predict. The decision could energize legions of Republicans who have been working toward this end for decades. But it could also turn off the swing-state women whom both parties are eager to win over. States may use the ruling to issue novel and punitive new laws; images of clinics closing their doors or medical providers being arrested could further sway public opinion.

“We grew up having a freedom that was just taken away. It’s probably going to take awhile ... for everyday people to realize the impact of losing a right,” said Aimee Allison, the founder and executive director of She the People, a liberal-leaning political group that plans to encourage women of color to turn out to vote for proponents of abortion rights this fall. “I think this decision will have a very big effect on our ability to communicate and to turn out women of color, because this is what’s at stake.”

Democrats have moved quickly to highlight races where abortion is literally on the ballot. In Kansas, an August referendum will allow voters to amend the state’s constitution to say it does not protect the right to abortion, which could set the stage for new restrictions there; in Michigan, there is an effort to create a ballot referendum that would add abortion rights to Michigan’s constitution.

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In Pennsylvania, the outcome of the governors’ race will have a direct impact on abortion access for millions of women — many of whom live in deeply Democratic cities like Philadelphia. The Legislature there is controlled by Republicans who have tried to curb abortion rights, only to be blocked by the veto pen of term-limited Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. The Republican candidate to replace him, Doug Mastriano, has said he would sign a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy or go further if he could, and that he does not believe in exceptions for rape or incest.

“‘My body, my choice’ is ridiculous nonsense here,” Mastriano said in a YouTube video, which Democrats have already cut into an ad.

The Democratic candidate, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, has vowed to veto such a bill.

Democrats in other states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, have also said the end of Roe raises the stakes in their races for governor. In Georgia, a state that is narrowly divided politically, Governor Brian Kemp, who is running for reelection against Democrat Stacey Abrams, said he hoped the state’s “heartbeat bill,” which he signed in 2019 but has been tied up in court, would soon go into effect, banning abortions after about six weeks’ gestation.

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Meanwhile, Democrats in close Senate races in states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, and New Hampshire are casting themselves as bulwarks against the possibility of a nationwide abortion ban — something that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said would be possible if his party reclaims the chamber in November. (He later said Republicans would not have the 60 votes needed to pass one over a filibuster by Democrats.)

“My opponents in the Senate race would join Mitch McConnell and vote to ban abortion nationwide,” said Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, a Democrat facing a tough reelection battle in the fall, at a rally in Portsmouth on Friday afternoon.

Speaking after the decision came down, President Biden summed up the Democrats’ message. “With your vote you can act,” he said. “You can have the final word.”

Republican strategists were quick to rebut the idea that the fall of Roe will fundamentally scramble a midterm environment that is already difficult for Democrats. Polls consistently show Americans are most concerned with the economy, and both the current high inflation and a historic tendency for voters to punish the party in power in the midterms spell trouble for Democrats.

“While yes, it’s a political earthquake, just a reality that we’ve all known for a long time has changed, I don’t see a broad impact on elections,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican communications strategist. Inflation, he said, “is a daily, weekly pressure that will affect every voter in the country.”

Other Republicans are minimizing the likelihood of a national abortion ban if Republicans gain majorities in the fall — a sign that they recognize its political toxicity.

“It’s totally exaggerating the real political situation,” said Scott Jennings, a former adviser to McConnell. “You need 60 votes to do anything in the US Senate, we’re not anywhere near a 60-vote majority in the US Senate.”

Democrats, however, are warning their supporters not to be complacent.

“We got here because of complacency. We got here because women were told they were being hysterical and everything would be fine,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist. “We need to take a minute and process this horrific decision, and then we need to once again go fight for leaders who will fight for us. That’s more than ‘voting blue no matter who,’ that’s about getting people who understand the urgency of the moment.”

Some Democrats, including Warren, renewed their calls to change Senate rules to allow bare majorities to push through laws — a move that more moderate Democrats continue to oppose — to do more to protect abortion rights, while others argued the Supreme Court should be expanded to rebalance it ideologically.

David Jolly, a former Republican congressman who left the party in 2018, said Democrats risk a backlash among voters if they use the decision to call for far-reaching changes such as expanding the court. But Republicans, he said, will alienate voters if they forget the simple fact that most Americans supported the abortion rights balance laid out in Roe.

“The loudest message from Republicans will be a fairly hardline message, embracing Dobbs as a victory,” Jolly said. “In close races where the suburbs and moderate women voters have an outsized influence, I think Democrats have been handed an opportunity politically by this decision.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.