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The Fall of Roe May Save Democrats in the Midterms, at Least in the Suburbs

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

For decades, while conservatives were patiently waiting for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, they were busy undermining it. In Congress and in statehouses, they pushed policies to make it harder to secure legal abortions, efforts that helped to widen the gap between the two major parties. And yet during the same time, most Americans settled into a complacent state in which they assumed Roe was settled law, even among those whom Republican Presidents appointed to federal benches.
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Well, on Friday, conservatives finally got their wish. The proverbial dog caught the car—and, at least politically, may come to regret it. Americans are still digesting the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling and its potential far-reaching consequences that could stretch from reproductive rights to personal relationships and marriage equality. But there will be no dodging this topic on the campaign trail.

It’s still early, and Election Day is a relatively distant 19 weeks away. But quick polling conducted in the days since the Supreme Court struck down the 1973 precedent shows political problems for Republicans, who otherwise seemed on a glide path toward November. Historically, the party that holds the White House has a dismal showing in its first test with voters; only the Sept. 11 attacks spared an incumbent President that insult back in 2002. President Joe Biden’s job approval numbers are among the worst since World War II, inflation is a persistent irritant to the electorate, and high gas prices are hitting everyone. Put another way, Republicans would have to really try to mess up their hand.

Yet on abortion rights, Democrats seemingly have an advantage on a topic dominating the news and likely to remain top of mind as almost every state will be forced to revisit its abortion policies. A record number of voters say abortion will be the issue that determines their vote this year, according to Gallup, and recent polls suggest a jump in interest in the midterms that seem to favor Democrats. Yet the threat of apathy and exhaustion is real, and sustaining outrage is hard work.

One group in particular may have outsized sway: college-educated women who determine the outcomes in the swingy suburbs. Many came to regret their support for Trump in 2016, and went back to supporting Democrats in the following two elections. Now they are none-too-happy with the Dobbs ruling. A significant 71% of college-educated white women support abortion rights, a recent NPR poll found, and they are a must-win bloc for Democrats’ longterm prospects.

Even before the Supreme Court issued its ruling, the number of Americans who told Gallup pollsters that they identified as “pro-life” was at its lowest level since 1996. A near-record 55% of those surveyed said they identified as “pro-choice” and, in a first, a majority—52%—said abortion was morally acceptable. Over decades of polls, Gallup has found increasing support for abortion, and even in the last year, support for abortion rights has grown across every single demographic group.

Since Friday’s ruling, voters seem to have doubled down. An NPR-Marist poll over the weekend found 56% of all adults opposed the decision and 53% of independents said the same. And in a reason for Republican alarm, 66% of suburban women said they opposed it, alongside 70% of white women who graduated from college.

The same NPR-Marist survey found, among all registered voters, 48% of Americans said they would vote for the Democrat running for Congress, a slight edge over the 41% who said they’d vote for the Republican. Those numbers track with the same survey’s results a month before the 2018 elections that swept Democrats into power. (Keep in mind, when it comes to which party controls the House, gerrymandering has rendered many of these voters’ opinions unimportant as competitive districts are tough to find in many states.)

In short, if Democrats can sustain the intensity around this topic, they may defy history and a Biden drag and dodge an electoral disaster. They’ve been laying the groundwork for this moment for months, and further stepped up focus groups and polling after a draft of the ruling leaked in early May. EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL—the big three abortion-rights groups—plan a $150 million blitz on the topic heading into the fall.

Republicans, however, are far from despondent. Their base loved the ruling: it carries 75% support among white Evangelicals, 84% of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, and 54% of white working-class men, according to NPR’s polling. GOP strategists have long argued that abortion fires up a small but dedicated part of the electorate, the volunteers who knock on doors and make phone calls. The emerging strategy appears to be to cast Democrats who support abortion rights as extremists; in New Mexico, where Democrats control the legislature, the GOP nominee for governor says he’s pro-life but is pledging only to ban “late-term and partial-birth abortion that the current governor supports.” (New Mexico stands to become a destination for abortion services as many other states in that region ban it altogether.)

Then there’s the economy. Everyone is feeling the pinch. Systematically, Democrats are simply hemorrhaging their voter rolls. An Associated Press analysis finds that more than 1 million voters across 43 states have switched to the Republican Party in the last year, a shift that is especially pronounced in the suburbs. If that trend holds, it could mean tens of thousands of suburban voters who were sour on Trump may have migrated back to the GOP, enough to potentially determine control of Congress.

What’s unknown is if the new abortion landscape might prompt those same voters to swing back into the Democratic fold. To that end, it’s worth listening to what suburban women are saying, especially the white ones with college degrees.

For Republican candidates, there will be little room to hide, especially if Democrats prove successful in painting the GOP as the party of extremism. Democrats will also have to address what comes next in a post-Roe world. Until recently, millions of swing voters had little expectation that Roe could really be struck down after so many years of hard-won durability. The surprise arrived and remade the political landscape. It’s now up to both parties to figure out how to read the new terrain.

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