WASHINGTON ― Democrats are gearing up to turn abortion into a key issue for the 2020 elections, saying it could turn out to be an issue that mirrors the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act in 2018.
“Trump has made abortion and, more broadly, women’s health care and women’s rights, to be an issue in 2020,” Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen told HuffPost. “He was the one who, during the State of the Union, lied, deliberately spreading misinformation about abortion care and women’s health care. He’s the one who has made this a campaign issue. And we say: Bring it on.”
The latest uproar came after Alabama passed the strictest anti-abortion law in the country last week, banning the procedure with no exceptions for victims of rape and incest. Seven other states have also passed new anti-abortion laws, with additional measures pending in state legislatures.
The Alabama law, in particular, was a wake-up call for many people. It goes further even than what some Republicans and abortion opponents support, because it doesn’t have the rape and incest exceptions.
Democrats believe the GOP’s aggressive push for these sorts of laws may backfire, just as their yearslong campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act did in the 2018 elections.
Ever since it passed in 2010, Republicans promised to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law. When Donald Trump won the White House and Republicans won control of both chambers of Congress in 2016, they finally had their chance. Voters, however, started to realize what would be lost if the law were repealed, and Obamacare suddenly became significantly more popular. Activists mobilized to protest vulnerable GOP lawmakers who had supported repeal, and health care was a top issue energizing Democratic voters.
Abortion could take the same route in the next election cycle.
“This issue is essentially a health care issue,” said Kim Baker, a co-chair with Indivisible Midlands (SC2), which is also fighting at the state level to stop the legislature from restricting abortion rights. “Then you bring in the extra attacks on women’s autonomy and reproductive rights, and I think it will be a very big issue going into the 2020 elections.”
“For a lot of years, the threat against women’s health care has been talked about, but they’ve never been as real as they are today,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who works on health care. “It’s changed from a coffee table conversation to a clear and present danger. That means voters can no longer stay with Republicans and assume that this won’t become an issue.”
This time, activists see a turning point with not just Alabama, but with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, solidifying a 5-4 conservative majority. The threat of the court overturning Roe v. Wade is suddenly real.
“The energy we saw around this day of action was even bigger than what we saw in the early days of Kavanaugh because what we said then is becoming real to people, which is: They’re going for broke,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “And that doesn’t mean just overturning Roe. It means criminalizing abortion, challenging rape, trying to control women. Women all over the country see that as a very real threat now.”
“I’m more worried than I have been since it was originally [put in place],” said Gail Kaplan-Wassell, a Maryland resident who came to the Supreme Court Tuesday to join a protest in favor of reproductive rights. Kaplan-Wassell said that as a college student in Massachusetts in the 1970s, she had also come to the National Mall to advocate for abortion rights.
The energy on the left was on display Tuesday, as activists turned out around the country ― more than 500 events were planned ― for a national day of action to support women’s reproductive rights.
At the flagship protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., hundreds of men and women showed up for abortion rights. Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg all came as well.
“Republicans are reminding America that they are in the minority on most of these important issues. Sometimes all of us have unpopular positions, that they’ve taken it to such an extreme that it puts an exclamation point on just how far removed they are from the majority of the American people,” Buttigieg told HuffPost.
Just 31 percent of Americans approve of the new Alabama anti-abortion law, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll. A quarter of Americans who say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases disapprove of the law, as do about a third of Republicans, self-described evangelical Christians and self-described conservatives.
“Women are becoming the most powerful political force in America, and they will decide the direction of our country in 2020.”
But one difference between the fight over the Affordable Care Act versus abortion was that on the ACA, most of the battle was in Congress ― and getting rid of GOP members who wanted to repeal the law. But on abortion, much of the fight rests with the Supreme Court, symbolized by the fact that the protest was on the steps of the institution Tuesday.
Advocates for choice argued that public pressure can still make a difference. There are elected officials at the state level, and activists want to see Congress take steps to protect reproductive rights. Many people also felt encouraged that every major 2020 Democratic presidential candidate supports abortion, and some are even offering proactive measures to strengthen those rights.
And, Hogue said, the Supreme Court can also be swayed by public opinion.
“This kind of mobilization can actually make the GOP think twice about how hard they want to push because they know that they’re losing women in droves right now, and they know that their political fate for decades to come is on the line,” she told HuffPost.
Not every 2020 Democrat is in the same place on abortion. Former Vice President Joe Biden stands out for, for years, supporting the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits spending federal money (such as Medicaid) on abortion services. And after the Alabama law passed, he notably tweeted a statement that was noticeably less fiery and outraged than what the other candidates were putting out. But he too seems to be feeling the energy: In early May, he said he no longer supports Hyde.
“Voters’ support for abortion rights is at a record high,” said Cecile Richards, the former head of Planned Parenthood who recently co-founded Supermajority, a group devoted to women’s political power. “Meanwhile, we’re seeing the most extreme attacks on those rights since Roe v. Wade more than 40 years ago. .... Women are voting in record numbers, donating in record numbers, sharing their stories, and organizing. Women are becoming the most powerful political force in America, and they will decide the direction of our country in 2020.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article called Pete Buttigieg the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He is still the mayor.