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The attack on Roe could lead to midterm victory for Dems — if they're smart about it

Can Democrats capitalize on a midterm election advantage they so fervently hoped for?
Image: Chuck Schumer, joined by the Senate democrats, addresses the media on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., joined by Senate democrats, addresses the media on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on the leaked draft opinion indicating the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, on May 3, 2022.Oliver Contreras / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

You’ve heard it all before: The political environment heading into the midterm election season favors Republicans. Democrats have struggled to navigate the issues that dominate American minds: the state of the economy, the increased cost of living, rising rates of violent crime and general maladministration in Washington. The party’s strategists have long known what is needed to right the ship, though: something that would focus the nation’s attention back on Republicans and help Democrats avoid an up-or-down referendum on their record. But that prospect seemed like a long shot. At least, it did until last week, when the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health went so far as to invalidate the precedents in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood.

Democrats have struggled to navigate the issues that dominate American minds: the economy, the cost of living, crime and general maladministration in Washington.

As late as that Monday morning, the Democrats’ hopes for a reprieve from the relentless news cycle were thin. The party wanted to turn Republican culture warring against the GOP by highlighting the good and noble work done by teachers, for example. They intended to make what Axios described as “little-known Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow” into a national star to leverage her attack on an emerging far-right claim that sexual education in elementary schools is tantamount to child abuse. And if they were lucky, Elon Musk would help rescue the party by giving former President Donald Trump back his platform on Twitter, reigniting the partisan fires that rendered Democrats a more palatable alternative to MAGA-style governance.

In short, Democrats were desperate. Their strategy of ignoring voters’ priorities, overestimating their ability to hijack the national conversation, and maybe benefiting from an ex machina only the fates could provide was not a strategy at all. It was a prayer. But with the leak of that Supreme Court draft opinion the fates may have delivered for Democrats. However, the opportunity that’s been bestowed on Joe Biden’s beleaguered party is as much a potential blessing as it is a curse.

The draft opinion sending the issue of abortion rights back to the individual states to decide provided a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape for Democrats. The political press echoed what center-left political observers had been anticipating for months: This sweeping draft opinion, if it resembles the court’s final decision, could “jolt,” “rewire” and “upend” the race for control of Congress.

About 24 hours later, another of the Democrats’ petitions to heaven appeared to have been answered by Ohio’s Republican primary voters. J.D. Vance, the most convincing mimic of Trumpian excesses in the crowded race for U.S. Senate in the Buckeye State, won his primary. It was the 45th president’s late endorsement of Vance that helped the candidate emerge from the middle of a pack of underwhelming competitors for the GOP nomination. Not only does Trump’s objective relevance in this race provide Democrats with an organic opportunity to prop up the former president only to knock him down again, but Vance’s intemperate comments and penchant for demagoguery also ensure that Trumpism will be a live issue in November.

Can Democrats make the most of these gifts? Maybe. There’s opportunity to be mined by clever candidates, and there’s a new obstacle in the path of Republicans who can no longer rely on the favorable political environment alone to push them across the finish line. But these glimmers of hope could also prove to be just that. And to the extent that they allow Democrats to avoid reckoning with the ways in which their brand has suffered during Biden’s term, they could become a poison chalice.

Yes, Democratic brand very much in bad odor. Don’t take my word for it. “I think what we have to do as a party is battle the damage to the Democratic brand,” said Democratic National Committee Chair Jamie Harrison in April. “It’s not even just with Republicans, the Democrat brand with some of the folks who are core at the base of our party is not the greatest.” That’s an important insight that is particularly relevant to the debate over the direction the nation will take after Roe. Democrats can galvanize their voters in opposition to overturning this judicial precedent, but there’s far less consensus about what comes next.

Though polling around the issue clearly indicates that Americans do not want to see Roe overturned, it also suggests that voters favor restrictions on elective abortions beyond the first trimester. Advocates for “safe, legal and rare” within the Democratic Party’s orbit have been largely replaced by activists for whom restrictions on the practice are regarded as assaults on women’s bodily autonomy. The New Republic’s Meredith Shiner probably speaks for many of the party’s most engaged voters when she demanded that Democrats “at least try” to nuke the filibuster, codify Roe in federal law and expand the Supreme Court —"even if those actions might ultimately and valiantly fail” —or else “they can stop asking for my vote.” So far, Democrats seem inclined to take her advice.

Though polling indicates Americans do not want to see Roe overturned, it also suggests that voters favor restrictions on elective abortions beyond the first trimester.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer has promised to once again attempt to force a vote making the language in Roe law — a move that will fail, “valiantly” or otherwise, because it already failed in February. At the time, the Shiner’s initiative couldn’t even secure the support of a simple majority of senators, much less the 60 votes it needed for passage. The vote did little more than demonstrate that Republicans were unified on the subject while Democrats were not. Sen. Joe Manchin, who opposes abortion himself, voted against the bill (just as he has consistently opposed eliminating the legislative filibuster).

The temptation to overpromise and underdeliver will be even harder to avoid on the campaign trail. Vance’s Democratic opponent in the Ohio Senate race, Rep. Tim Ryan, was recently asked by Fox News Channel host Bret Baier if he supports “any limits on abortion at any point,” including “late-term” terminations. “Look, you got to leave it up to the woman,” the congressman replied. The Democratic nominee for Texas governor, Beto O’Rourke, stepped on a similar landmine last week. “This is a decision for a woman to make,” he said when asked if there should be any legal restrictions on the practice. These sentiments are reflective of how the party’s progressive activist class believes abortion should be managed, but they’re wildly out of step with where the country is on the matter (to say nothing of the sentiments that prevail in red states such as theirs).

And what about Trump’s reemergence on the national stage? “The more the election becomes about Trump, the better the Democrats’ chances become, many in Biden’s orbit believe,” Politico reported. Democrats will likely benefit from the contrast with Trump, but they risk appearing more than a little cynical if they’re actively exhuming the former president from the political grave to which they consigned him two years ago. If Trump is the existential menace Democrats make him out to be, the party’s messengers must be careful not to celebrate his return to the fore too loudly.

Struggling against mighty political headwinds, Democrats needed a miracle. They got the Supreme Court and a resurgent populist GOP. It’s possible that they can take maximum advantage of this bounty, but it’s a double-edged sword. In the end, Democrats may conclude they should have been more careful about what they wished for.