Schumer, Senate Dems test whether abortion vote will energize Democratic voters in November

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his colleagues are hoping that a vote on abortion rights Wednesday will help cement it as a premier issue in the November midterm elections.

“The entire country will be watching because for the first time in 50 years a conservative majority on the Supreme Court is on the brink of dismantling 50 years of precedent and declaring women do not have the right to an abortion,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday afternoon. “When you see Republicans not willing to embrace this decision, you know they know this is not a decision that is favored by the American people and is not favored by history.”

Schumer has teed up a vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, even though the measure is almost guaranteed to fall short of the 60 votes needed to clear a filibuster. A vote on the same measure at the end of February failed to garner enough support.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, with his finger raised, speaks to reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP) (AP)

With the odds of sending any type of abortion protections to President Biden’s desk almost nil — the Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, and Democrats hold only the slimmest majority in the House of Representatives — much of the talk in Washington has instead turned to whether this fight will be enough to energize Democratic voters.

“We know that the issue of abortion has a special salience for voters when the threat seems proximate, and what current events have done and what the leak of the draft opinion has done has moved this conversation from the theoretical to a proximate threat,” said David Bergstein, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

It’s been a little more than a week since Politico published its stunning scoop revealing that the five most conservative justices on the Supreme Court plan to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that guaranteed a constitutional protection of abortion rights. If the court follows through on the draft, written by Justice Samuel Alito, it would end that federal protection.

A person holds up a sign displaying photos of five Supreme Court justices and the words: Justices Who Voted in Support of Overturning Roe vs. Wade.
An abortion rights activist holds up a sign in front of the Supreme Court on May 3 in response to the leaked draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The results of a Yahoo News/YouGov Poll conducted after the leak suggest that Democrats could benefit if the issue is on the ballot. The survey of 1,577 U.S. adults found that registered voters initially preferred a generic Democrat (44%) over a generic Republican (39%) by 5 percentage points when asked how they would vote in their district today.

But when voters were asked to choose between a “pro-choice Democrat” and a “pro-life Republican,” GOP support fell to 31% while Democratic support held steady — more than doubling the gap between the two candidates to 13 percentage points, Yahoo News’ Andrew Romano reported.

Asked on CNN Wednesday what the purpose of a vote destined to fail was, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime member of Senate Democratic leadership, said it was to draw eyes to the issue.

"Perhaps [the] attention of the electorate,” Durbin said. “They have the final word in this basic decision as to whether Roe v. Wade will be overturned. If it is, be prepared. We already have signals from legislatures across the United States of the extreme positions they’re going to take. In fact, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said it is possible that we will just outright ban any abortion procedures across America."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks at a lectern in front of the Capitol.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks in front of the Capitol on May 3 about the leaked draft opinion on Roe v. Wade. (Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

But Democrats aren’t quite sure yet just how much the issue will energize their supporters to turn out and vote in November. One veteran Democratic operative said the impact was still being polled by various groups and that the news of the expected opinion had not been fully absorbed yet by voters.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found that support for Roe v. Wade had ticked up in the past week, to 53% supporting it and 28% in favor of overturning it. The same poll found just 48% of Republicans support overturning Roe.

“Most people never thought this was possible. So this has not been on the radar of the average voter,” said Cecile Richards, the former longtime president of Planned Parenthood who is now co-chairing American Bridge 21st Century, a super-PAC that backs Democrats.

Richards recounted the story of a 26-year-old woman in Texas who was charged with murder for what authorities described as a self-induced abortion and was imprisoned, though the local prosecutor later dropped the charges.

Activist Cecile Richards speaks at a women's march.
Activist Cecile Richards speaks at a march in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 2, 2021, after the state rolled out a near-total ban on abortion and access to abortion-inducing medications. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters) (REUTERS)

“When the American people have to start seeing doctors and women arrested, nurses and people actually now facing criminal penalties, I just think it's a very different thing. It makes it very real,” Richards said. “And so I do think there's no way to know exactly what will happen. But I do believe this has dramatically changed the landscape.”

Anti-abortion activists said Tuesday that they see the issue playing better for their side. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the organization Susan B. Anthony List, released polling Tuesday showing that in critical Senate battleground states, including Wisconsin and Arizona, voters broadly support a Republican candidate who favors limiting abortions to the first 15 weeks after conception versus a hypothetical Democratic candidate who supports abortions until birth.

“This sets us up as a movement, to take away the elections and the midterms. They are setting themselves up as the party of abortion absolutism,” Dannenfelser said.

Dylan Stableford contributed reporting to this story.