Joe Biden is suffering his worst job approval numbers of his presidency. The messy Afghanistan withdrawal and the COVID-19 spike have bruised his reputation for competence. Biden’s standing has deteriorated just as Democrats in Congress are squabbling with themselves over how much they should spend, and how much of his domestic agenda, should be included in its next major bill. With midterm elections a little more than one year away, the Democratic Party’s grip on a narrow congressional majority looks increasingly tenuous.
And Republicans want to start banning abortions?
Texas Republicans have lit a political powder keg, with a new law known as Senate Bill 8 effectively banning abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy and incentivizing anyone across the country to sue any Texan who provides an abortion or helps someone get an abortion. After the Supreme Court refused to stay implementation of the law, other Republican-controlled legislatures are considering similar legislation. States with Republican governors eyeing a presidential run in 2024 appear particularly interested.
Whatever your opinion on abortion, you should be able to discern that, as a political strategy, the Texan gambit is an insanely risky bet for Republicans to take — at a time when Republicans don’t need to take a political risk.
Abortion is deeply polarizing issue. The political advantage can shift depending on what aspect of the issue is in the spotlight, and how the issue is framed. But generally speaking, legal abortion with some restrictions is the political middle ground. Case in point, the Texas bill bans abortions after a so-called “fetal heartbeat” is detected. A national 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 50% of people supported, and 44% opposed, a ban on abortion “once a fetal heartbeat is detected.” But when the pollster then explained such heartbeats are detected “around six weeks into pregnancy and before most women know they are pregnant,” the numbers flip: 56% oppose and 38% support.
With Texas Republican leaders enacting the most extreme abortion ban in the country, you might assume they were simply acting on the desires of a decidedly anti-abortion majority. Not so. The continued dominance of the GOP in Texas masks the state’s bluing trend, driven by an influx of college-educated workers.
A June 2019 University of Texas poll found that 45% of Texas voters consider themselves “pro-life” versus 39% “pro-choice.” This past February, the same pollster found that “pro-choice” voters now held a slight plurality of 41% versus 40% saying “pro-life.” To drag a state undergoing such significant demographic change into a bitter culture war battle is the definition of political risk.
Keep in mind that Texas will be a battleground state for control of the U.S. House next year. National Republican operatives are eyeing five Democratic-held Texas seats. Most expect the state’s Republican-led government to aggressively redraw the congressional district lines and tilt the map in their favor. But a new map that creates more Republican-leaning districts by thinly spreading the Republican vote, could make it harder for the GOP to withstand any progressive backlash — which a near-total abortion ban could well produce. To ruin Republicans in 2022, such a backlash wouldn’t have to cover Texas from border to border, just in the districts that count.
The Texas law isn’t the only abortion-related factor that could impact the 2022 midterms. The Supreme Court had already decided to review Mississippi’s stayed 15-week abortion ban, and will likely issue its ruling in late June or early July, about four months before the midterms. Upholding the law would require either overturning Roe v. Wade or severely scaling back its enshrinement of abortion rights.
Pro-life Republicans could have waited for the court to rule on the Mississippi law before pursuing additional, more restrictive abortion bans in other states. But they are pursuing an impatient strategy, clearly hoping that enacting more abortion bans now will have a normalizing effect that helps persuade the Supreme Court to take the next step and take down Roe. And if the Supreme Court has five justices determined to repeal Roe regardless of the surrounding politics, then Roe will go.
But the opposite could also come true. A wave of harassing lawsuits might turn the public away from the pro-life cause, spooking the Supreme Court, leaving Roe unscathed and uniting the Democratic base in advance of November 2022.
Republicans have overreached on abortion before. In 2012, Missouri’s Todd Akin derailed his chances to win a Senate seat when he claimed that rape victims rarely get pregnant because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” Indiana’s Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock made a similar gaffe when he defended his position against allowing rape victims to get abortions by saying, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” In 2013, Virginia gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli was hammered for supporting legislation requiring women to get an invasive “transvaginal ultrasound” before getting an abortion. All lost winnable races.
Of course, midterms almost always go poorly for the president’s party, and a spate of extreme abortion bans — even if they’re unpopular — may not generate enough outrage among abortion rights supporters to help Democrats keep control of Congress.
Still, Republicans are refusing to take the politically safe path. Their desire to outlaw abortion by any means necessary is outweighing any rational political calculus.