Carl P. Leubsdorf : The political impact of the abortion issue is clear

From the commentary: ... There is no confusion about the political impact of the overall abortion issue, after last year’s Supreme Court revocation of a woman’s right to choose.

Abortion rights protestors
Abortion rights activists rally in Miami after the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court on June 24, 2022.
(Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

A trio of federal court decisions has left uncertainty and confusion about the legality of abortion pills and the conditions under which they can be used, leaving it to the Supreme Court to sort things out.

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From the commentary: Based on what he has done to date, Ron DeSantis' pledge to do for America what he has done for Florida may not frighten the right wing of the Republican Party, many of them Trumpers, but it may not hold up so well among general election voters, who overwhelmingly support Roe v. Wade and think well of Mickey Mouse. And Trump remains the 600-pound gorilla on the Republican side.

But there is no confusion about the political impact of the overall abortion issue, after last year’s Supreme Court revocation of a woman’s right to choose, an array of state actions banning or limiting abortions, and the current efforts to restrict or ban abortion pills.

“It changed the whole electoral environment,” said Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina on Fox News Sunday. An abortion rights foe, she wants the GOP to moderate its stance by supporting exceptions to an outright abortion ban.

What Mace meant is that, politically speaking, the unwavering Democratic support for abortion rights has given their party a political advantage. Meanwhile, Republicans have dug themselves into a political hole by lining up virtually en masse against legalized abortion rights.

The politics didn’t always break this way.


Until last year’s high court ruling, the prevailing consensus was that Republican efforts to restrict or revoke the right granted by the high court in 1973 helped their party politically by motivating the turnout of anti-abortion religious conservatives who backed GOP candidates.

They helped elect Donald Trump in 2016 after he pledged to name abortion foes to the Supreme Court. Trump probably benefited again in 2020 from nominating the three justices who ultimately supplied the votes to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

But that was then. This is now.

Soon after the court’s June 2022 ruling threw the volatile issue back to the states, the revised partisan balance came into focus.

Republican governors and legislatures in “red” states like Texas began passing ever more restrictive anti-abortion measures, while Democrats in “blue” states sought to provide legal sanction for abortions.

At the same time, Democrats, facing an uphill fight in last November’s midterm elections, made the issue their top national priority after a Kansas referendum in which voters, by a 3-to-2 margin, kept legalized abortion in the state constitution.

The wisdom of their political calculation was confirmed last November. Nearly as many voters cited abortion as the top issue as did inflation, and they voted 3-to-1 for Democratic candidates. Even Trump, whose nominees had major responsibility for the Supreme Court decision, reportedly said Republicans may have hurt themselves politically by ruling out exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

In the unfolding GOP race for the 2024 presidential nomination, only slight differences have emerged in the anti-abortion positions of most candidates and prospective candidates.


Former Vice President Mike Pence, not yet a formal candidate, said after the Supreme Court decision “we must not rest and must not relent” until abortion is banned in every state in the country.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen in polls as Trump’s leading rival, last week signed legislation barring most abortions in Florida after just six weeks of gestation.

But Trump, whose judicial nominees produced last year’s decision, has said little about it in campaign speeches — not that he can escape responsibility for his role in the court’s decision. And some Republicans have stumbled in addressing the issue.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., epitomized the difficulty on his first trip after creating a presidential exploratory committee. He told New Hampshire television station WMUR he favored a ban at 20 weeks but later said he would consider a 15-week ban. Then, he told MSNBC, “I would literally sign the most conservative pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress.”

The only potential GOP candidate who supports abortion rights is New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who signed legislation in 2021 allowing the procedure up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. “Any conversation about banning abortion or limiting it nationwide is an electoral disaster for the Republicans,” he said last year.

But those words seem to have fallen on deaf ears, because of continuing strong opposition to legalized abortion in the Republican base.

Meanwhile, a new political battlefield arose after a federal judge in Texas overturned the Food and Drug Administration’s 23-year approval of the abortion drug mifepristone, Top Democrats immediately denounced the ruling, while most Republicans avoided comment, though Pence hailed it.

With another federal judge in Washington state simultaneously upholding the FDA’s authority and a federal appeals court in New Orleans issuing a nixed ruling, the Supreme Court is poised to straighten out the legalities.


Any decision that upholds the judge’s ruling, either wholly or partially, will certainly spur the Democrats’ drive to make abortion a central 2024 issue. But it won’t change the basic politics of the issue.

The political danger for the GOP is underscored by the fact that recent polls show a minority of all voters support the Texas judge’s ruling on the abortion drug, just as only a minority backed the Supreme Court ruling denying a woman’s right to an abortion.

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And in the latest sign of public attitudes on the issue, voters in the crucial presidential swing state of Wisconsin decisively elected a woman to the state Supreme Court who made protection of abortion rights the centerpiece of her campaign.

“This is an issue that Republicans have been largely on the wrong side of,” Mace told CNN after the Texas ruling. She said the GOP needs to show more compassion on the abortion issue because “most Americans aren’t with us.”

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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