Abortion counteroffensive could buoy California DemsMay 18, 2022
California’s push to ensure abortion rights could also boost Democrats across the ballot.
The Supreme Court’s draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will give Democratic candidates nationwide a clarifying issue to run on. But unlike most other states, California Democrats can deploy the state’s storied ballot initiative system to drive voters to the polls — with a ballot measure that would enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution.
“There’s public outrage and confusion and people are scared, and all of those feelings you would expect would have an outcome in the coming election,” said Jodi Hicks, CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, is to turn that anger into action.”
That action could transform the contours of midterm elections, expanding California Democrats’ margins in the statehouse and shoring up the national party’s defense of its House majority. Control of Congress will hinge in part on a half-dozen California races where turnout could be the difference.
Incumbents are running on the issue: Rep. Katie Porter — drawn into a new district with a tiny Democratic registration edge and a large share of suburban women — has been on television frequently assailing the court’s draft decision, predicting it would unleash “frustration and rage.” Frontline Republican incumbents are already feeling the heat. After barely winning his Los Angeles district in 2022, Republican Rep. Mike Garcia is getting hammered over his abortion stance.
Newsom and legislative leaders in California — who had already begun positioning the state as a haven for people seeking abortions — wasted no time looking to bulletproof constitutional safeguards. Within days of POLITICO reporting that the high court had voted provisionally to overturn Roe, California Democrats announced they aimed to place a measure on the November ballot that would explicitly include the right to abortion in the state’s constitution. The idea grew out of an abortion council’s recommendations to prepare for an expected adverse ruling.
The effects of such an initiative could ripple beyond activating the party faithful. Californians of every party oppose overturning Roe, according to a recent statewide poll — including more than three-quarters of independent voters, a swing bloc that comprises about a fifth of the state’s electorate. It could also animate young voters, who tend to vanish in midterm elections, by giving them an urgent reason to go to the polls.
“I expect it will definitely galvanize Democratic voters to get out and vote, and perhaps not just Democratic voters but those who have no party preference,” said NARAL Pro-Choice California Director Shannon Olivieri Hovis.
That broad consensus on abortion means there is little upside for vulnerable California Republicans to highlight the issue. Most Republican voters would prefer to keep Roe in place. GOP leaders reacted to the Supreme Court news by accusing Democrats of distracting from more important economic issues.
That disinclination to engage exasperates the state’s small but passionate anti-abortion rights movement. “This is an opportunity Republicans are missing by using the ostrich, head-in-the-sand approach, by not talking about it at all,” said Karen England, head of the Capitol Resources Institute. “I think it’s going to hurt Republicans if we don’t start talking about how extreme the California Democrats are on this issue.”
Augmented Democratic turnout in California could give the party a bulwark in some key House races. Both parties are vying over a handful of swing seats that could help determine control of Congress.
Republican voters have so far reported far greater enthusiasm to turn out in November, reflecting a bleak political landscape for Democrats and the GOP’s perception of an open path back to power. President Joe Biden’s California poll numbers have sunk as voters are pinched by rising prices and pessimistic about an anemic economy. The emergence of abortion as a defining issue could narrow that gap.
“At a time when the economy is so-so at best,” said Public Policy Institute of California President Mark Baldassare, “how do you motivate the party in power? This is a reminder for Democratic voters that there is a reason to vote, especially in the House elections.”
Political strategists for both parties have long sought to juice turnout with ballot measures intended to galvanize their base. That was the strategy behind a 2018 gas tax repeal measure funded by prominent California House Republicans. Now Democrats have a cause for 2022 — even if it is a fight they’d rather not see reopened.
“I know that political people search for reasons to drive turnout,” said California Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who has reshuffled her caucus’ agenda to move the initiative to the ballot by an end-of-June deadline. “On this particular issue, I’d rather be looking at still trying to find what would bring out the voters.”
California has a recent case study in the political potency of abortion. Newsom crushed a recall attempt last year in part by playing up his contrast on the issue with Republican frontrunner Larry Elder, who strenuously opposed abortion rights. Allies like Planned Parenthood helped the governor amplify the message, and now Newsom is running an abortion-focused ad as he seeks reelection this year.
The key to successfully defeating the recall, Newsom adviser Sean Clegg said, was “to make it a choice.” The 2022 contest could allow Democrats to communicate a similarly stark contrast. Newsom has roughly $4 million in a ballot measure committee that he could deploy to boost the abortion amendment.
“No one wants to read a silver lining into this issue being alive and awakened the way it has, but I think it’s going to have a unique electoral impact,” Clegg said. “It’s going to create a counter-movement.”
California Democrats in swing districts are already hammering that message. Former Assemblymember Christy Smith ran an abortion-focused ad in her race against GOP Rep. Mike Garcia before POLITICO reported the Roe vote. Now Smith says she has seen a surge in volunteers and donations.
“I think it was a wake-up for a lot of people who, rightly so, have been recovering still from Covid and what has been a challenging economy,” Smith said. “This was an issue that said we still have these big fights ahead of us well.”