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Why Democrats keep saying “Roe is on the ballot”

It seems like the only concrete Democratic plan to protect abortion rights is voting.

A “Rock for Abortion Rights” concert, rally and march outside the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, California. Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

The first fundraising emails from Democrats running in midterm races this year went out within an hour of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. If you check your inbox, they might still be coming, whether from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of the party’s fundraising committees, or the Biden-Harris campaign team.

The quick fundraising push is part of Democrats’ strategy in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson, the case that stripped Americans of their constitutional right to an abortion. Essentially, the party’s plan is to win a large enough congressional majority that Democrats are able to codify Roe’s protections, even if they have to blow up the filibuster to do it.

It’s not the worst plan, and is really the only thing (outside of some executive actions, perhaps) that Democrats can do at the federal level to protect abortion rights now, given their narrow control of the Senate. But it’s also emblematic of a larger disconnect between national Democrats and many of their supporters who just lost the right to an abortion — and who think the party doesn’t seem too worried about it. As many of the protesters who’ve taken to the streets in the wake of Dobbs have expressed, many average Democrats are worried their elected officials don’t have any solutions for people who need abortions right now and suddenly have no way to get them.

“My rights should not be a fundraising point for them or a campaigning point,” Zoe Warren, a demonstrator, told MSNBC on Saturday. “They have had multiple opportunities to codify Roe into law over the past 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and they haven’t done it. And if they’re going to keep campaigning on this point, they should actually do something about it.”

Nevertheless, as more states enact bans and enforce restrictions on abortion in the coming weeks, Democrats are leaning into Roe as a central campaign issue for the fall elections. And that has created the impression among progressives and activists that beyond telling people to vote, Democratic leaders have no concrete plans for an immediate or decisive response to emboldened Republicans looking to further restrict abortion access or the Supreme Court’s erosion of other constitutional rights.

That leaves the party in a precarious situation: hoping to sustain anger and frustration long enough to get people to vote in November, without alienating its base or worsening already staggeringly low trust in America’s democratic institutions.

Democrats have had a disjointed national response to Dobbs so far

As Republicans nearly universally celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision, Democrats seemed almost to be caught off guard, reacting in a patchwork fashion.

At the federal level, President Joe Biden addressed the nation and announced a few actions that he would ask federal agencies to take, including protecting access to contraception and abortion medications and free movement to seek medical care. Pelosi attacked the court’s decision in a press conference and called for Democratic voters to turn out in November. Some congressional Democrats chanted and marched to the Supreme Court later in the day. All of it felt a little chaotic; many lawmakers weren’t in Washington on Friday because their two-week Fourth of July break had started, and the president was getting ready for a trip to the G7 meeting of world leaders in Germany.

At the state level, Democratic leaders who have more options offered some substantive action, rushing to reassure anxious residents. Democratic governors in California, Oregon, and Washington states announced a pact to protect abortion rights, access to reproductive services, and patients. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced that he would use his clemency powers to nullify convictions under his state’s previously unenforced 19th-century abortion ban, and not appoint prosecutors who would enforce the law. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took an additional step in her efforts to block a 1931 abortion ban from going into effect by asking the state’s supreme court to decide if the state constitution protects the right to an abortion.

Democratic candidates and incumbents in governor and Senate races were also quick to address the fear and anger the decision provoked. Most highlighted the precariousness of numerous rights if Republican candidates were to win statewide office or tip the scales of congressional power, arguing that GOP control would enable more sweeping abortion, contraceptives, and marriage equality restrictions.

Again, Democrats are right that abortion access looks very different depending on which party is in charge. But focusing on the very real threat elections pose to protecting or restoring abortion rights doesn’t speak to the frustrations many Americans are feeling right now. Plenty of candidates understand that too, even if there is not much they can do.

The competing pressures of long-term strategy and a need for immediate action

Many Americans have already been directly affected by the end of Roe. Since Friday, nine states have banned abortions outright, affecting more than 7 million people able to give birth. Abortion providers in other states, like Arizona and Texas, have already stopped performing procedures. In Missouri, the first state to implement a trigger law that bans abortions in the state without exceptions for rape or incest, Democratic US Senate candidate Lucas Kunce told me that restoring abortion rights is a “right now issue.”

“I hear all of these national, these DC Democrats, talking about this as an election issue: It’s an election issue, and this is why we got to win,” Kunce said. “Let’s say there’s a bonanza Democratic victory here. People aren’t going to get into office until January, and then they’re going to have to pass a piece of legislation, and it’s going to be an entire year. What they are saying when they say this is an election issue is that they’re looking at the working-class people in Missouri … and telling us that they think the filibuster is more important than us having the same rights as people who have money. It’s the most fucked-up thing I’ve ever heard in this country.”

Among young people, Democrats’ response may contribute to the sense that no institutions in American democracy are really working for them, both lawmakers and candidates told me. The president’s sinking approval rating, especially bad with young voters, reflects this in part, and there’s concern among some Democrats that inaction on Roe could end up biting establishment Democrats in the future.

“In my conversations with young folks, they want someone who’s actually not going to just pay lip service and is actually going to fight for this stuff,” Sarah Godlewski, the Wisconsin state treasurer who is running to be Democrats’ Senate candidate, told me. “This goes back to who’s upfront and unapologetic about [defending abortion rights], because that’s what they want.”

One option for Democrats to sharpen their electoral messaging is to simply be more specific. In a thread of tweets this weekend, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) suggested national Democratic leaders “must tell voters the plan.”

“For the moments when we DO insist on elections, we must be PRECISE with what we need and we will do with that power: How many seats does the party need to Codify Roe? Dems must SAY THAT. Not just ‘go vote’ or ‘give us $6 to win.’ That is demoralizing, losing, unfocused nonsense,” she wrote.

Ocasio-Cortez was also among the progressive politicians calling for Biden to take executive action by doing things like allowing abortions to be performed on federal land in every state. Many other experts, advocates, and average Twitter users are coming up with innovative ideas for the federal government to try to protect access to reproductive health services and information. But their fervor doesn’t seem to be matched by Democratic party leaders.

Another option, one advocated for by Nevada’s Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, is to keep pressure on the GOP.

“It does matter who we elect — it does. To pass legislation in the Senate, you need 60 votes — that means you have to have more Democrats,” Cortez-Masto of Nevada told me. “This idea of placing blame — if we start placing blame on one another, then we’re letting the Republicans win, we’re letting them put this in place and continue to erode our rights, instead of taking them head on, and holding them accountable for it, and standing up to them.”

The challenge for Democrats is the need to respond to people’s immediate needs, while also planning medium- and long-term solutions. That requires them to make their messaging as nuanced as possible.

One model might be the strategy employed by Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, who isn’t on the ballot this cycle but is backing the state Democratic governor’s reelection effort. She was one lawmaker who shared a list of resources for people seeking abortion services or information about their options post-Roe, instead of the standard statements of concern that many other elected officials shared.

Previously a Planned Parenthood executive, she told me that she felt an obligation to show not just solidarity with people upset by the Dobbs decision, but also provide help and information. When I asked her about the disparate (and at times, tone-deaf) responses from other Democrats on Dobbs decision day, her voice swelled as she told me about the women she worked with before joining Congress.

“Everybody needs to be centering what we’re doing and focusing our work and our action on those people who need abortion care, who decided that that was what is best for them, and who now don’t have that choice,” Smith said. “There’s lots of political discussions swirling around this, and that is completely understandable. But fundamentally, for those people, this isn’t about politics. It’s about what the hell is going to happen to my life now?