Social conservatives cheering the rash of state laws limiting legal abortion might want to be careful what they wish for.
That’s because Democratic prospects for 2020 are likely to improve as uncertainty about the future of Roe v. Wade grows. And uncertainty will grow as more and more states impose restrictions on legal abortion.
Republicans need a net gain of 18 or 19 seats to win back the House — a difficult task but certainly not an impossible one. And the party can lose a net of three Senate seats (if they keep the White House) and still maintain control of the chamber in 2021.
But magnifying the debate over abortion rights could well put the House out of reach next year for the GOP, put the Senate at much greater risk and further undermine President Donald Trump’s already iffy re-election prospects.
Democrats’ successes in 2018 were built on two very different groups — core party supporters, including progressives, minorities and younger Americans; and swing voters, including college-educated whites (especially college-educated white women), who have often been attracted by the GOP’s stances on taxes, spending and business regulation.
Both sets of voters turned out for Democratic House candidates last fall, which is why Democrats gained a net of 40 seats in the chamber.
Unfortunately for Republicans, the same two groups are likely to be motivated by the abortion issue in 2020.
Women went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 13 points in 2016, 54 percent to 41 percent, largely on the basis of her strength among non-whites. Two years later, the national House exit poll showed Democrats carrying women by an even larger 19 points, 59 percent to 40 percent.
Trump actually carried white women comfortably by 9 points in 2016, 52 percent to 43 percent. Two years later, white women split evenly, 49 percent to 49 percent, wiping out the president’s advantage.
College-educated white women went for Clinton in 2016 by a relatively narrow 7 points, 51 percent to 44 percent. But two years later, Democrats won white women with a college degree by an overwhelming 20 points, 59 percent to 39 percent.
The Democratic surge among college-educated white women was unmistakable, and it did not occur by chance.
White women in general, and college-educated white women in particular, came to dislike Trump’s style and language, as well as elements of his agenda.
Now, with the economy generally strong and swing voters free to think about things other than jobs and interest rates, college-educated women who supported Trump in 2016 but voted Democratic two years later will again feel free to send a message about culture and values, not taxes and government regulation.
The last word?
Obviously, a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would further elevate abortion as a defining issue in 2020, giving more energy to the abortion rights movement.
Conversely, a Supreme Court decision reaffirming Roe and rejecting the constitutionality of the kind of restrictions on abortion that states are now imposing might actually breed complacency among those who support abortion rights.
But it’s unclear when or whether the nation’s highest court will deal with new state restrictions on abortion before next year’s general election. Given that, supporters of abortion rights are likely to focus on the more “extreme” proposals that seek to circumscribe Roe, just as critics of Roe — including the folks at LifeNews.com — have often portrayed abortion rights activists as supporting infanticide.
The problem for Republicans is that they are likely to go into the 2020 election dragged down by an issue on which they are too easily portrayed as extreme and insensitive to women.
Yes, they will have their arguments assembled as to why that is not the case, but the bigger the issue becomes, the more likely 2020 becomes a fight over culture and values that benefits Democrats, not the party of white evangelicals and white men without a college degree.
Historically, Republicans have benefited from abortion because of the intensity of the support from those who oppose legal abortion. Even though polls generally show more voters back abortion rights, those people don’t vote on the issue, as is illustrated by polling on abortion and Roe v. Wade by Gallup.
The increased salience of abortion as a voting cue is likely to benefit Democrats because it will energize voters who favor abortion rights but have assumed up to now that they are not under serious attack.
The greatest danger for Democrats is that a John Roberts-led Supreme Courts reaffirms Roe and looks unkindly on state restrictions intended to dramatically limit, or eliminate, legal abortion in some states.
That would be a loss on public policy for Republicans going into 2020, but it would be the better electoral outcome for the party.
Note: This column appeared initially in the May 21, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
In my column last week, I noted that current public opinion data and recent election results point to a likely Democratic takeover of the House in the fall.
Some argue President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is already baked into the election cake, leaving Republicans little room to maneuver. But if you are a GOP strategist or ally of the president, you still need to formulate a plan to improve your party’s prospects and even look toward 2020.
Is there anything Republicans can do to change the trajectory of the election cycle? And if there isn’t, would a disaster for congressional Republicans in November automatically be a political disaster for Trump?
One veteran GOP campaign operative who is sympathetic to the president acknowledged something that should trouble Republicans on Capitol Hill: “Trump just endorsing a nominee is not enough. He can’t bring people out without issues.”
That conclusion seems reasonable given the Democrats’ advantage on enthusiasm and after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania to rally support for Republican nominee Rick Saccone, but the president couldn’t move the needle enough even in a district he had carried by 20 points in 2016.
He’s not alone. Previous presidents with strong personal followings also found their popularity didn’t transfer to their party when they were not on the ballot.
Firing up the base
Republican strategists across the ideological spectrum agree there isn’t much they can do about the Democrats’ sky-high energy levels. But conservatives who have rallied behind the president are still looking for ways to boost enthusiasm among Trump voters that would minimize the damage in the fall and keep the House in GOP control.
Some Republican strategists argue the GOP’s best chance to improve the landscape this year is to push a legislative agenda that is both generally conservative and broadly popular. They hope a Trump-like agenda will energize those in their party’s base who don’t identify with the GOP in Congress and were drawn to Trump’s message, combativeness and maverick style.
Conservative strategists cite a handful of possible issues: (1) “phase two” of tax reform, (2) workfare for those on public assistance, (3) infrastructure, (4) paid parental leave, (5) health care, and even (6) term limits for Congress.
Workfare/welfare reform and term limits, in particular, have populist appeal for working-class Americans who continue to see Trump as a disruptive force and Washington as a swamp that needs draining. But would Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, really adopt term limits? And would further tax cuts have any chance of being enacted after a massive spending bill?
“I don’t have any expectations that these initiatives would pass this year, but it is important for us to raise the issues and try to force a vote on them,” said one strategist who thinks pushing some of those items can improve the president’s job approval numbers.
Another GOP campaign consultant agreed with the overall approach: “Continue to push policy and legislation, and force Democrats to kill them. We need to run against the Democrats for stopping the Trump agenda.”
These conservatives are pessimistic about the midterms, however, because they complain their party’s congressional leadership isn’t committed to doing much this year. And without a pro-Trump legislative agenda (or a new version of the Contract With America), they argue, Republican turnout will be disappointing.
There is one kicker that might change the trajectory of the election enough to help the GOP — a Supreme Court retirement or vacancy that would need to be filled after the elections. While a confirmation fight would involve only the White House and the Senate, it isn’t difficult to imagine Trump and Republican operatives using the development to crank up the GOP base and Trump enthusiasts everywhere.
Finally, Republican strategists from both the populist and establishment wings of the party agree that losing the House in November would not necessarily be a terrible thing for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.
While control of that chamber would give Democrats a platform from which to investigate the president, his family and the entire administration, it would also give Trump something he desperately needs: a very visible enemy.
Trump supporters see House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as an ideal adversary — a far-left, San Francisco elitist with poll numbers as bad as or worse than the president’s.
“The president would be best off with a Republican House and Senate that would help him get stuff done over the next two years. But if he doesn’t have that, then having an enemy going into 2020 would be good,” a Republican said.
Another summarized it this way: “Lose the House. Get a boogeyman. Run against [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi for two years.”
But things aren’t quite that clear.
Multiple Hill investigations would keep the White House tied in knots, which would likely frustrate Trump and cause him to say even more outrageous things than he has so far. And Pelosi could choose to retire, depriving the president of the adversary he desires. Moreover, nobody knows where the economy will be in 2020, or how the Mueller investigation or the Stormy Daniels case will develop.
Opinion about Trump is so polarized that it is difficult to see how the midterms won’t be about him. Republicans can’t do much about Democratic enthusiasm, but they may be able to have some impact on GOP turnout. If so, they could hold on to a few seats that now appear poised to flip.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 28, 2018.