Abortion Could Define California’s Elections

The Supreme Court’s controversial Roe decision continues to reverberate across the country.

Picture of a masked girl with a sign that reads "STOP the Supreme Court from taking away Abortion Rights!"
Ringo Chiu / AFP / Getty

CERRITOS, Calif.—Abortion rights dominated the message when the Democratic congressional candidate Jay Chen sent off a small group who had gathered to canvass for him here early on Sunday morning.

“A right that we had all assumed we would have, the right of a woman to have control of her own health-care decisions, was taken away after 50 years,” Chen told the volunteers. He reminded them that his opponent, Republican Representative Michelle Steel, had co-sponsored “a federal ban on abortion” that would prohibit the procedure even in deep-blue California.

“You name it, she’s on the extreme end of all these issues,” Chen said. “She’d be a complete outlier even in deep-red Kansas because even in Kansas they protected the right to an abortion. So for her to try to represent [this district] does not make any sense.”

Chen’s exhortation captured the outsize role abortion rights could play across this year’s unusually large field of competitive U.S. House races in California, after the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this summer. The Golden State offers Democrats the nation’s single largest concentration of opportunities to offset losses elsewhere by flipping House seats now held by Republicans. And the abortion-rights issue offers Democrats their best chance to do so—particularly with a state constitutional amendment protecting access to the procedure also on the November ballot as Proposition 1.

“Because we have this on the ballot, Republicans cannot run away from this issue,” says Dave Jacobson, a Democratic consultant who is advising Christy Smith, the party’s nominee against Republican Representative Mike Garcia in another Los Angeles–area district. “Every Republican in a competitive district is vulnerable with this issue at the top of the ballot as a constitutional amendment. I think it is going to drive turnout.”

California will provide a crucial measure of how broadly the abortion issue may benefit Democrats this year. On both sides, there’s agreement that abortion’s increased prominence will strengthen Democrats in districts with a large number of white-collar voters—including the coastal seats south of Los Angeles now held by Democratic Representatives Katie Porter and Mike Levin. Less clear is whether the issue will prove as powerful in districts, such as those held by Republican Representatives Garcia and David Valadao, with larger numbers of blue-collar and Latino voters who may be acutely feeling the effects of inflation. The district in which Chen is challenging Steel demographically falls somewhere in between.

“Presumably you’ll see coastal Republicans split with the party on things like choice,” predicts Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and the publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes state elections. “On the other hand, when you are looking at some inland and Central Valley districts, they are very different,” he told me. Although “there’s all this chatter that abortion is so important,” Sragow added, “I suggest most Americans do not wake up with abortion the thing they are most worried about,” particularly in working-class communities.

Though solidly Democratic at the state level—Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is cruising to reelection this year without serious Republican opposition after defeating a GOP-backed recall effort—congressional contests in California have proved highly susceptible to swings in the national mood. As part of the “blue wave” in 2018, the party flipped seven Republican-held seats, reducing the GOP to its smallest share of California’s congressional delegation since the 1880s. But in 2020, Republicans recaptured four of those districts—a key part of their unusual success at gaining House seats nationwide while losing the White House.

Earlier this year, when inflation was raging and the Democratic legislative agenda seemed stalled, Republicans were optimistic about advancing farther across California by potentially ousting Democratic Representatives Josh Harder in the Central Valley and Porter and Levin in Orange and San Diego Counties. Although Democrats acknowledge that those races (and another Democratic-held open seat) remain competitive, they now see the opportunity to go on the offensive against Steel, Valadao, and Garcia, as well as potentially Representatives Ken Calvert and Young Kim in Southern California; they also see an opportunity to contest a Republican open seat in the Sacramento area.

Several other issues have also contributed to this reversal of fortune: increased attention to gun violence after the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting; renewed focus on Donald Trump amid the revelations from the House January 6 committee and the firestorm over his mishandling of classified documents; and climate change after the passage of the Democrats’ slimmed-down reconciliation bill. But analysts in both parties see the Supreme Court decision reversing Roe as the pivotal factor shifting the congressional landscape across California. “We are just seeing an unprecedented level of outrage,” Representative Levin told me in an interview.

As in other states, Republicans continue to express cautious optimism that frustration over inflation and disenchantment with the performance of President Joe Biden will outweigh views on abortion. “Of course [abortion] is going to be an issue, way more than it was in May of this year,” Lance Trover, a Republican consultant advising Representative Steel, who ousted a Democratic incumbent in 2020, told me. “But at the end of the day, the fundamentals of the economy are going to be key.”

California Republicans face an unusually powerful headwind in moving beyond the abortion issue. Almost all Republicans holding or seeking congressional seats have staked out hard-line anti-abortion positions that directly collide with polls showing deep and broad support for abortion rights across the state.

Polling in July by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that more than two-thirds of state residents opposed the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe. That included about three-fourths of African Americans and Asian Americans, seven in 10 white voters, and just over three-fifths of Latino voters. About three-fourths of independents, whom Republicans need to compete in California, because they are so outnumbered by registered Democrats, opposed the ruling. Opposition to the decision was greatest in the big blue metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco, but even in areas where Republicans have traditionally performed somewhat better, such as Orange and San Diego Counties and the Central Valley, preponderant majorities opposed the decision.

In another survey released last week by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times, more than seven in 10 California voters said they intended to support the constitutional amendment inscribing abortion rights into the state constitution.

“From a public-opinion perspective, it’s a settled issue in California,” Mark Baldassare, the PPIC president, told me. “We have seen what we would describe as overwhelming support for abortion rights in California consistently in our polls over many, many years … That’s pretty consistent across demographic groups and regions of the state.”

The state’s Republican congressional delegation—as well as the party’s challengers in the key races—have placed themselves firmly on the opposite side of that consensus. Four of the House Republicans facing the potentially toughest contests—Steel, Garcia, Valadao, and Calvert—signed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. All of them but Calvert have co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act, a Republican bill that would define the unborn as a person under the Constitution from “the moment of fertilization” and effectively ban abortion nationwide, legal scholars say. Representative Kim, another Republican facing a potentially competitive race in an Orange County district, did not co-sponsor that bill, but has described herself as a “proud pro-life woman” who believes “the rights of the child must be respected.” The GOP challengers to Harder, Levin, and Porter have also publicly declared their opposition to legal abortion.

As signs have grown of the backlash to the Supreme Court decision—including the Democratic victory in a New York congressional special election and the resounding defeat of a Kansas ballot initiative that would have opened the door to state abortion restrictions—several of the California Republicans have tried to obscure their positions. For instance, although the Life at Conception Act offers no exceptions and Steel earlier this year said she supported legal abortion only when the mother’s health was endangered, she told me in a statement, “I am pro-life with exceptions for rape, incest, and the health and life of the mother, and baby.” In a statement to the Los Angeles Times this week, Representative Garcia backed the same exceptions—which, again, are not included in the “life begins at conception” bill he is co-sponsoring.

In her statement, Steel downplayed the possibility that a Republican-controlled Congress would seek to ban abortion nationwide, though notably without disavowing the idea: “Discussions surrounding a nationwide ban on abortion are purely hypothetical at this point,” she declared.

But such vague dismissals may not dispel the vulnerability California Republicans face over the possibility of a national ban on abortion, particularly amid the parallel debate over amending the state constitution.

Though neither supporters nor opponents of the constitutional amendment have yet raised much money, Newsom, who is emerging as a national leader for Democrats on cultural issues, is expected to campaign heavily for it and raise its visibility this fall. “I don’t want to give away our plans … but I would expect him to play a very prominent role,” Sean Clegg, a senior strategist for Newsom, told me. Abortion rights and the constitutional amendment to protect them, he added, are “going to have an effect in every single race in California.”

The proposed amendment on the ballot in November represents the third level of protection for abortion rights in California. In earlier rulings, the state supreme court has already decided that the procedure is protected under the state constitution’s guarantees of liberty and privacy. This amendment, placed on the ballot by Newsom and the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature, adds an explicit guarantee that “the state shall not deny or interfere with an individual’s reproductive freedom … which includes their fundamental right to choose to have an abortion and their fundamental right to choose or refuse contraceptives.”

Yet even all those reinforcing levels of protection for abortion rights in the California constitution would be preempted if Congress approved a national ban, legal analysts agree. The Life at Conception Act would surely face legal challenges if a future Republican-controlled Congress passes it, but should the law be upheld, it would override any California action to guarantee abortion rights, according to Cary Franklin, a constitutional-law professor at UCLA and the faculty director of its Center on Reproductive Health, Law, and Policy. “If Congress were to pass a national ban on abortion, that would trump state law, even state constitutional law,” she told me.

That’s a message Democrats are likely to pound across the state in the campaign’s final months. “If Steel has her way, she will pass a federal ban on abortion, which will override our protections here, and I think Californians are coming to realize that,” Chen, a Naval reservist and the owner of a business that manages commercial properties, told me. By contrast, Chen, like the other Democratic incumbents and challengers, supports legislation restoring a national right to abortion.

Opponents of the state constitutional amendment, such as Steel, say it would authorize abortions at any point in pregnancy, ending current state restrictions after a fetus is viable outside the womb (unless the mother’s life is endangered). Its sponsors deny that interpretation, but it will likely become the centerpiece of the campaign against the amendment. “Pro-life people may have had enough,” Susan Swift Arnall, the vice president of legal affairs at California’s Right to Life League, told me. “They may say, ‘This is too far. This is too extreme … And we want to send a message back to the legislature that we don’t support abortion on demand for all nine months and even into the birth of the baby.’”

But the greater likelihood is that the amendment mobilizes turnout among the decisive majority in the state who support abortion rights. “There’s no question the [Supreme Court] decision has really created a great deal of increased interest from women voters for sure, and not just Democrats,” Levin said. “We are talking about independents, even some Republicans. Those who historically haven’t voted in midterm elections, I think, are motivated.”

By solidifying Democrats in suburbia, abortion rights’ growing visibility, like the increased focus on gun violence and renewed attention to Trump, may narrow the range of House districts the GOP can realistically contest both in California and nationwide, and lower the ceiling on their potential gains. But not enough voters may prioritize abortion to neutralize Republicans’ other advantages in economically strained areas. Like so much else in modern American politics, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe seems likely to further widen the chasm between white-collar and culturally cosmopolitan metropolitan areas trending toward the Democrats and blue-collar, socially conservative smaller places hardening in their support for the GOP, even in staunchly Democratic California.