clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The end of Roe could be a double-edged sword for Republicans

Gutting abortion rights might not boost the GOP in the midterms.

Protesters in front of the Supreme Court building hold signs that read “Bans off our bodies” and “Keep abortion legal.”
Anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights activists demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court Building on May 3, 2022, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

If the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, it would mark the culmination of Republicans’ yearslong battle, spanning the courts and state legislatures, to make it all but impossible to get an abortion in many parts of the country.

But it’s not clear that it will give the party any significant boost in the upcoming midterm elections.

Republicans have been cautious about declaring victory given the draft nature of the opinion overturning Roe that was leaked to Politico on Monday. Instead, they’ve focused on investigating and holding to account the leaker, who they argue has undermined the independence of the Supreme Court.

“This lawless action should be investigated and punished to the fullest extent possible, the fullest extent possible,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during a floor speech on Tuesday. “I’m certain the chief justice will seek to get to the bottom of this. If a crime was committed, the Department of Justice must pursue it completely.”

But if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe, it’s not clear from their initial reaction that Republicans want to do much public celebration at all. While GOP candidates could tout their party’s ability to deliver on their long-running campaign promises on abortion, it’s equally plausible the decision will energize the majority of voters who believe that Roe should still stand.

How Republicans can play the decision to their advantage

If the Supreme Court does indeed strike down Roe, Republicans will be able to say that they delivered on their promises to the anti-abortion movement after decades of investment. They focused on appointing judges amenable to overturning Roe and building power at the state level to ensure that they could ban abortion in those places if it ever became a possibility.

“I think you’re going to see [Republican] senators, especially the guys on the Judiciary Committee — Mitch McConnell and all of his lieutenants — saying, ‘This is why we focus on judges,’” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas. “They’re going to talk about this nonstop to the base to turn them out. This will be about saying, ‘We delivered for you. Give us the majority and we will deliver again.’”

And even Republicans who don’t like Trump would have to concede that overturning Roe wouldn’t be possible without him. He appointed 226 federal judges with lifetime tenure — more than any other president in one term — and that includes nearly as many appeals court judges as former President Barack Obama appointed in two terms. He assured the party of three seats and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Though the party might currently be splintered along pro-Trump and more traditional establishment lines in some 2022 races, Republicans have a common goal in rolling back abortion rights and appear close to achieving it. Trump, the GOP establishment, grassroots activists, and the Federalist Society — the right-wing legal organization that has pushed for more conservative judges and justices — will all get credit.

“This is a moment of unity,” Steinhauser said. “People will be celebrating and people will be congratulating each other.”

For Trump, the decision also helps cement his conservative bona fides as he gears up for a 2024 presidential run.

“It gives Trump one more angle to play. His legacy is three of the five justices [who supported overturning Roe], at least on the leaked document,” said Matt Dole, an Ohio-based GOP strategist.

Republicans will have to contend with an energized Democratic base

Republicans are wary of Democrats energizing their lethargic base around abortion rights heading into the fall. That might not be enough for Democrats to overcome other factors that point to a devastating election year for them, including inflation and an unpopular Democratic president, but it could certainly help drive higher turnout than previously expected.

“I definitely think it’s a jolt for the Democrats and that it’s not really a jolt for Republicans. Republicans are already fired up and ready to show up to vote. So I don’t think it helps Republicans at all,” said Jay Williams, a Georgia-based GOP strategist.

Republicans might also risk alienating otherwise amenable independents and swing voters if they dwell on the issue too much. Nearly half of Americans consider themselves pro-abortion rights and a majority oppose overturning Roe v. Wade as well as laws making abortions legal only in the first six or 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“In a general election, you don’t run on [abortion.] In primaries, I don’t know that it’s going to make that much of an impact. So I don’t think it will change their strategy right now,” Williams said.

Republicans might also be banking on voters’ passions on the issue cooling before the general election in November.

“There’s obviously going to be people who feel very strongly on both sides of this issue in May or maybe June. But that’s a ways out from the election. So my guess is the fervor will die down somewhat,” Dole said. “I don’t know if, in five months, this decision really has any measurable impact on either side.”