Is This How Democrats Break Their Midterm Curse?

Most Democrats don’t approve of Texas’s new abortion ban. But they hope it may help them gin up voter enthusiasm.

Protesters hold up signs at a protest outside the Texas state capitol
Protesters hold up signs at a protest outside the Texas state capitol (Sergio Flores / Getty)

The new Texas law that bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected—and which the Supreme Court has so far declined to block—is an enormous blow to abortion rights in America. But Democrats, who tend to support abortion access, aren’t all doom-and-gloom about the measure. The thinking among some in the party goes like this: An abortion ban is terrible for women—but it’s great for ginning up voter enthusiasm.

Democrats need the help. Republicans generally show up to the polls much more consistently in off-year elections, and next year, the primary target of Democratic voters’ ire—Donald Trump—won’t be on the ballot. Democrats have spent the past few months trying to decide how to zap their voters back to attention, and the party appears to have settled on a strategy of telling voters that Republicans are all extremists. They see the Texas abortion law as an example they can run with. “When you have Joe Biden in the White House and a Democratic Congress, you feel a little more calm than you did the last four years. You think you can watch Bachelor in Paradise in peace,” Lanae Erickson, a vice president at the moderate think tank Third Way, told me. “But this shows what the stakes really are.”

Democrats have public opinion on their side: Abortion bans aren’t broadly popular in any state, and although the Texas law isn’t a full ban, it comes close—and it will allow Democrats to paint Republicans as hard-liners who are out of touch with public opinion. This issue could very well be the tipping point in districts that are heavily suburban, with a lot of educated women. “It’s ultimately possible that Democrats are going to break their midterm curse,” the progressive pollster Sean McElwee told me. McElwee says his firm, Data for Progress, has already seen a jump in its own small-dollar donations following the Texas law’s passage. The Texas law allows private citizens to sue abortion providers and anyone else who “aids or abets” an abortion, and he expects that “each individual civil suit is going to be a rage-inducing piece of content for Democratic small-dollar donor fundraisers.”

Party leaders are telegraphing their desire for abortion to be front and center in the midterms. On Twitter, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney promised that “we’ll be fighting from now until Election Day to make sure that the House Republicans who are coming for reproductive rights lose their seats in 2022.” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called the new law “a powerful reminder” of the midterms’ significance.

Democrats have used anti-abortion advocates’ words against them before and found political success. The Missouri Republican Todd Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy led to his downfall in his race against the Democrat Claire McCaskill back in 2012. The same year, the Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock lost his Senate race to the Democrat Joe Donnelly after he said that pregnancy from rape is something “God intend[s] to happen.”

Virginia, which holds its statewide elections in November, will be the first test of whether Democrats in the post-Trump era are sufficiently energized—and whether the Texas law helps them get voters to the polls. The gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe has released a flurry of statements warning that a Texas-style law is in Virginia’s future if voters elect the Republican Glenn Youngkin. Pro-abortion-rights groups in the state have echoed that message. Tarina Keene, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, told me that her group has seen a surge of Virginians signing up to be monthly donors and sponsoring their annual gala in the past 48 hours. Anti-abortion activists and candidates may see a bump in interest in the coming weeks, too, as the new Texas law raises the saliency of the issue among voters. But it’s easier to raise funds and attention when voters feel like their side is losing. “I haven’t seen the Texas law being a catalyst for a lot of conversation,” Olivia Gans Turner, the president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, told me. Her group is still focused on reminding voters of former Governor Ralph Northam’s 2019 comments on late-term abortion.

Keene is confident that the Texas law “will shock [Virginians] awake,” she said. “This could very well be the tipping point for the election.” She’s confident because she’s seen it before. In 2012, Virginia Republicans passed a law requiring women to receive an abdominal or transvaginal ultrasound before they could get an abortion. Democratic opposition was fierce, and the following year, McAuliffe beat the Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the race for governor. “We were off and running with a new, involved, vibrant, and committed reproductive-freedom movement in Virginia,” Keene said. “And that’s what kicked it off.”

The original article said that Richard Mourdock said rape is something “God intend[s] to happen.” In fact, Mourdock said that pregnancy from rape is something "God intend[s] to happen."