Wisconsin’s Supreme Court victory has underscored the strength of abortion messaging for Democrats, putting to rest an internal party debate about how prominently to elevate the topic during elections.
Ahead of last fall’s midterms, Democrats were at odds about making reproductive rights part of their closing message to voters, with some arguing that they should emphasize economic issues instead, and others saying the two are intertwined.
But with major victories in November and on Tuesday night under their belts, progressives and moderates are coalescing around a strategy for 2024 that puts a pro-choice platform front and center, and, they hope, puts Republicans on the defensive.
“There was a lot of concern that the Democrats were spending too much time talking about this issue,” said Carly Cooperman, a Democratic pollster who has conducted numerous surveys on abortion over the past year. “Inflation was high, gas prices were high, and there wasn’t enough pivot to the economy,” she said, recalling the argument some were making in the final stretch of the cycle.
There were fears that “this was going to actually hurt them.”
“As we saw, that was not what happened,” Cooperman said. “Actually, abortion proved to be really a galvanizing issue for Democrats and also helped them win a lot of races in swing states that might not otherwise have been won.”
Indeed, Democrats spent the weeks heading into the last election cycle debating the merits of bringing the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade into the forefront. Both sides agreed on the importance of promoting reproductive freedom — it’s one of the least contentious parts of the party’s platform — but the decision to highlight it in tight races was fiercely debated.
With inflation soaring, some Democrats said that voters needed to hear more about their candidates’ plans to address their economic strife. That thought hinged on the idea that so-called pocketbook issues affect more people and can be messaged more universally.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an economic populist, caught heat for bringing that view into the public consciousness in the closing weeks of the election. He wrote an opinion column for The Guardian roughly a month before Election Day, titled: “Democrats shouldn’t focus only on abortion in the midterms. That’s a mistake.”
But the argument cut across ideological lines. Top centrist Democratic campaign strategists and pollsters also argued for turning the attention back to the economy, wary of risking both the House and Senate. The White House, for its part, endeavored to do both. Biden delivered speeches in succession on reproductive freedom and gas prices in an attempt to hit each note.
Pro-choice advocates and others in the party, however, said that abortion rights should be elevated to the highest importance. They noted polling showing that voters rejected the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and continue to support individual choice.
That sentiment has only solidified after this week’s results, where in Wisconsin, a progressive, pro-choice judge named Janet Protasiewicz ran a campaign that made her opponent Dan Kelly’s pro-life record a point of contrast.
Democrats saw droves of votes come in from the base constituencies they need to turn out in future contests. And more central to elections in battlegrounds, it was shown to be a mobilizing factor for the types of voters they need to broaden their appeal with.
“Almost two million votes were cast for a Supreme Court election and the issue that motivated Democrats the most was one progressives spent years sounding the alarm about,” said Stacey Walker, a former surrogate for Sanders in Iowa.
“Imploring centrist Democrats to protect Roe before we reached the dreaded moment we’re at now,” he said.
Democrats see Tuesday’s results as another indication of the power of the issue when up against the prospect of more restrictions or even total bans in red and purple states that could have national implications.
“It’s what galvanized the youth vote, and contributed to higher turnout numbers in the suburbs, with women and independents,” said Rahna Epting, executive director or MoveOn, whose membership is mobilizing around protecting reproductive rights.
Democrats are now looking at a wave of restrictive measures in other states to show more unity between their side and the GOP’s. This week, as the party celebrated Protasiewicz’s victory in the Badger State, other nearby states also moved to ensure that residents had their right to reproductive choice protected.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) repealed a state-wide abortion law that dated back nine decades, which was passed after Democrats won control of the state legislature.
“These are all voting blocs who are very uncomfortable with the MAGA extreme position on abortions and are willing to make their voices heard even in off-year elections,” Epting said.
As Cooperman and other pollsters say, polling still shows an advantage for Democrats on the issue.
A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found overwhelming support across the entire country for ensuring people have access to abortion protections. The poll found that 64 percent of respondents said that the health care procedure “should be legal in most or all cases” after asking adults across 50 states.
“It is reaching moderate voters, swing voters, independent voters as well,” she said. “That’s the only way that Democrats are winning some of these races.”
The point of unity comes at an important moment for the party in power. President Biden has not officially announced plans to run for reelection, but most Democrats — including those close to him — believe he will follow through with a second term bid.
Some of his recent moves to the center on things like immigration, crime, and climate, however, have caused resentment among his party’s left wing, whose support he will need to recreate the coalition he built against the Republican Party in 2020.
The unified stance around abortion is one area where the party has fallen in lockstep, which many believe is important when presented in contrast to the GOP.
Democrats also say that while the president is still expected to focus on communicating the party’s values on the economy and abortion rights at the national level, the scrutiny over individual state legislatures and courts is likely to have even a sharper focus in 2024.
Wisconsin and Michigan are critical to any candidate’s electoral calculus, and Democrats’ recent victories on the issue gave members across the ideological spectrum more confidence in incorporating the messaging into their strategies.
“Abortion is going to still be really powerful,” Cooperman said. “People are not going to fight that like they were leading up to the midterms.”