Women’s access to birth control took a big hit Monday morning when the Supreme Court decided that certain companies don’t have to provide contraceptive coverage under Obamacare if they have religious objections to doing so. But in ruling for Hobby Lobby, the court’s conservative justices may have just handed Democrats a big weapon for November.
It’s not just that the health-care law’s requirement that employer-sponsored insurance cover contraception is popular with voters—though it is. Or that many Republicans are now on record celebrating a decision that leaves a woman’s contraceptive choices in the hands of her boss—though they are. More important, the court’s 5-4 ruling, backed by the five GOP-appointed justices, helps Democrats make the case that women’s health care and reproductive rights are genuinely at risk if Republicans expand their power this fall.
The particular dynamics of modern midterm elections could amplify the ruling’s political impact: In recent cycles, Democrats’ core supporters haven’t turned out at nearly the same rate in non-presidential years as they have in presidential ones—with disastrous consequences for the party. Monday’s decision isn’t likely to change the minds of many swing voters, but it could help Democrats get one key demographic—unmarried women—to the polls.
Already, the party is working to make that happen.
Not two hours after the decision was announced, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted out its opening salvo in that effort. “Today’s Hobby Lobby decision is a grim reminder of how much is at stake in this election,” Regan Page, a committee spokeswoman, said. “Nearly every Republican Senate candidate in the country supports radical measures that would block birth control and roll back women’s health care rights even further than today’s ruling.”
That was a reference to “personhood” measures, supported by GOP Senate candidates in many of the highest profile races, which could have the effect of banning popular forms of birth control.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, piled on in her own statement. “It is no surprise that Republicans have sided against women on this issue as they have consistently opposed a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions,” she said, adding, ”In the wake of this dangerous precedent set by the Supreme Court, Democrats in Congress will continue to fight on the issues of importance to women and their families.”
It’s not just in Senate campaigns where the ruling could be fodder for Democrats. In Ohio, the party’s candidate for governor, Ed FitzGerald seized on the news to try to paint his Republican opponent, Gov. John Kasich, into a corner. Kasich, said FitzGerald in a statement, “needs to tell voters if he supports involving employers in women’s healthcare decisions.”
Even Wendy Davis, who has been reluctant to talk about women’s health issues since her celebrated filibuster of an abortion bill a year ago, was quick to use the ruling to go after her Republican opponent in the Texas governor’s race. “Today’s disappointing decision to restrict access to birth control puts employers between women and their doctors,” said Davis in a statement. “We need to trust women to make their own healthcare decisions – not corporations, the Supreme Court, or Greg Abbott.”
For their part, Republicans were eager to frame the ruling as a matter of religious liberty and a defeat for President Obama—avoiding any direct reference to the issue of women’s access to contraception, where they know public opinion isn’t on their side.
“Today’s decision is a victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its Big Government objective,” Speaker John Boehner said.
Some have gone even further. Slate’s Dave Weigel points to a statement from Colorado’s Republican senate candidate, Rep. Cory Gardner, one of the GOPers who has been attacked for his support for a personhood amendment. After celebrating the victory for “religious liberty,” Gardner quickly pivoted to urging the Food and Drug Administration to make oral contraceptives available to adults without a prescription, desperate to present himself as a supporter, not an opponent, of access to contraception.
Gardner’s strategy may or may not work for him, but it’s instructive nonetheless. In politics, when you’re trying to minimize differences on an issue while your opponent is working to play them up, you can be pretty sure you’re on the defensive. And, despite the substantive victory for opponents of contraception, that’s where Republicans find themselves.