Democrats make claim for mantle of individual liberty, limited government in abortion debate

House Democrats are preparing to use abortion rights as their heavy ammunition against Republicans heading into a tough election season that could cost them control of the lower chamber.

Part of the strategy will include flipping the script on traditional GOP arguments, with a message that it is the Democrats who are defending freedom, advocating for limited government and honoring individual rights when it comes to abortion access and a looming Supreme Court decision many expect to radically pare back the constitutional right to the procedure.

“This is about how much people want government control,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat. “We’re a party that stands for freedom, and the freedom to be without government control over basic decisions about family and a person’s own body.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) hosted several pro-abortion groups, including Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, and NARAL, on Wednesday to provide input on how to run winning campaigns on abortion in swing districts. Republicans need a net gain of just five seats in the midterms to re-take the House after four years with Democrats in charge.

The planning measures come as the Supreme Court prepares to release its ruling on a case that’s expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that granted women the right to an abortion free of government interference. 

The House Democrats’ campaign arm has put out key questions to put the GOP on the defensive in the debate, including whether they support the reversal of Roe v. Wade; to what extent they want to see restrictions on abortions; their response to polling that shows the majority of the public support some access to abortion; and their message to women who fear losing the option to have an abortion.

“House Republicans are embracing a dangerous, backwards crusade to rip away women’s freedoms and threaten the livelihoods of millions of women and families. Voters won’t accept the extremist and harmful reality Republicans are fighting for,” said Nebeyatt Betre, DCCC spokeswoman.

Rep. Deborah Ross, North Carolina Democrat, said she’s already seen voters galvanized by the pending high court decision. The party, she said, must let the electorate know that Democrats are pro-women.

“Our job is to assure the women in this country that we’re on their side, we trust them to make the most important health decisions with their families,” Ms. Ross said.

Democrats are hoping the argument will increase their chances to hold onto their narrow majority in November. Members have also been tying Republicans to strict abortion laws already passed in a number of conservative states that have sought to heavily curb abortion rights and access in anticipation of the high court’s ruling.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, California Democrat, said women would constantly be under attack under a GOP-dominated Congress.

“It’s extreme,” Ms. Eshoo said. “Are women going to be arrested because so many states are poised to enact their ‘trigger’ laws? Are women going to be arrested for driving over state lines? Are neighbors and family members going to be encouraged to report someone because they think they’re going to have an abortion? It’s so chaotic.”

Wooing women voters

Ms. Eshoo added that beyond abortion, issues such as access to contraception and birth control also provide a political opening to women voters.

“What stands out to me the most is this will be the first time in the history of our country that the Supreme Court of the United States takes rights away,” Ms. Eshoo said.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a New Mexico Democrat who spoke at the caucus meeting on behalf of the Hispanic caucus, said she’s already seen an uptick of “health care refugees” coming into her state from Texas, after Texas officials moved to ban most abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

“We’re fighting against letting the government into a doctor’s office to decide what a woman should do,” Ms. Leger Fernandez said. “We’re fighting against denying Latinas and women of color the kind of access they need because they may not have the money to get to a state like New Mexico which would get them access.”

Ms. Leger Fernandez said abortion could also be an issue that mobilizes Hispanic voters in a year where Republicans are seeking to make inroads with those communities.

In recent years, congressional Democrats have become almost uniformly supporters of abortion rights, with rare exceptions such as Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who narrowly won his primary election against a liberal challenger who attacked him for his pro-life views.

On the flip side, House Republicans have used the issue to target their broad list of vulnerable Democrats this November as advocates for late-term and so-called partial-birth abortions.

Following the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion striking down Roe last month, GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy defended the decision, saying that House Republicans were committed to “upholding the sanctity of life.”

Rep. Kat Cammack, Florida Republican and the youngest GOP woman serving in Congress, said Democrats’ focus on abortion indicates the party is out of touch with voters more concerned now with inflation and the economy.

“When I talk to my peer group, they are all on the pro-life train,” Ms. Cammack said. “We will be the generation that ends Roe v. Wade, and when you think about how all this is playing out, you can’t have America with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if you’re not willing to defend life.”

A May Gallup poll found that most Americans have become more pro-choice on abortion since the Supreme Court’s draft opinion was leaked last month.

The survey, conducted between May 2 and May 22, found that 58% of people believe Roe v. Wade should stand, while just 35% said it should be reversed. The poll had an error margin of +/-4 percentage points.

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