After Donald Trump took office in 2017, one of his first major decisions was nominating Neil Gorsuch to fill the high court’s vacancy, effectively completing the theft of a Supreme Court seat. Senate Republicans patted themselves on the back. Alleged moderates, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, went along with the scheme, expressing confidence that Gorsuch would leave the Roe v. Wade precedent intact.
As regular readers may recall, it was a year later when Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the nation’s highest court. Maine’s senior senator went out of her way to vouch for the conservative jurist and his commitment to precedent. The New York Times reported at the time:
“Protecting [the right to an abortion] is important to me,” said Ms. Collins, who said a two-hour, face-to-face session with Judge Kavanaugh and an hourlong follow-up call, as well as an exhaustive review of his opinions, had persuaded her that he would not overturn Roe v. Wade. “His views on honoring precedent would preclude attempts to do by stealth that which one has committed not to do overtly.”
This morning, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh joined with four other Republican-appointed justices to overturn Roe. Collins was wrong. The consequences of her mistake have the potential to change the direction of the nation.
But to focus solely on the Maine senator would be to miss the forest for the trees.
As Collins vouched for Kavanaugh, other Republican proponents of reproductive rights followed suit. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, for example, ended up opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination, but she declared on the Senate floor, “I do not think that Judge Kavanaugh will be a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, as Republicans scrambled to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the high court, Democrats told voters the future of reproductive rights was on the line in the 2020 elections. As we’ve discussed, Republicans, well aware of public opinion, furiously pretended otherwise.
In one of the presidential debates, for example, after Joe Biden said the Roe v. Wade precedent was on the ballot, Donald Trump immediately pushed back. “Why is it on the ballot?” the Republican asked. “Why is it on the ballot? It’s not on the ballot.”
The same day, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa insisted the likelihood of Roe being overturned was “very minimal.” She added, “I don’t see that happening.” Republican Sen. Thom Tillis used similar rhetoric during his re-election campaign in North Carolina.
The deception at least made tactical sense: The more voters realized how much damage an even-more-conservative Supreme Court was likely to do, the more Republican officials and candidates risked an electoral backlash.
It’s precisely why so many in the GOP simply pretended that reproductive rights weren’t on the line, Roe‘s future was sound, and Americans could count on the status quo remaining in place.
“Just keep voting for Republicans,” the party effectively said. “There won’t be dramatic changes. Roe has been around for a half-century and it’s not going anywhere. Trust us. Democrats are just trying to scare you. Don’t listen to them.”
As a strategic matter, the messaging worked. Voters were lulled into a false sense of security. The week after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Dobbs case, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that nearly two-thirds of the public “either said they didn’t know how likely the court was to overturn Roe or said the court isn’t likely to overturn the precedent.”
Much of the public assumed that everything would remain the same indefinitely. They thought wrong.