How Abortion Could Threaten GOP Control of the Senate

Sometimes party control of a legislative chamber shouldn’t logically be in danger given the political fundamentals. But circumstances can and do change.

For the better part of this decade, for instance, if you asked me about the chance of Republicans losing their majority in the House, my response would have been “not much.”

In 2011, Republicans redrew congressional maps in 16 states with 199 congressional districts, not even remotely offset by Democratic gerrymanders in four states with 40 districts. At the same time, population shifts served to concentrate Democratic votes more highly in urban areas, effectively “wasting” a lot of Democratic votes, while GOP voters were more efficiently distributed. Together, those structural advantages seemed like they’d protect Republicans in all but the worst of years.

That’s exactly what their very unpopular president managed to deliver in 2018—the worst of years. Circumstances had indeed changed.

Similarly, the Senate “should" be reasonably safe for Republicans in 2020 and, for now, it is. While there are 22 GOP seats up compared to 12 seats for Democrats, none of them are behind enemy lines in solidly blue states. Not a single Republican seat up in 2020 is nearly as endangered as five Democratic seats up last year. Sure, Sen. Susan Collins is seeking reelection in Maine, which Hillary Clinton won by 3 points in 2016, and Sen. Cory Gardner is up in Colorado, which Clinton carried by 4.9 points, but these are hardly vertical cliffs. Four more Republicans in states that President Trump won by single digits—Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—all have to be careful, but none are exactly the walking wounded.

Put it this way: No Republican senator is in the same hemisphere of vulnerability as Democratic Sen. Doug Jones is in Alabama. Even if Republicans in the Yellowhammer State are crazy enough to nominate former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore again, now that allegations of Moore’s interest in underage girls is “old news,” it is questionable whether in a presidential year Jones could even beat him. This is not a knock on Jones, but being a Democrat defending a statewide office in Alabama in a presidential year is a real challenge.

It sure seemed last year that things couldn’t get much worse for Republicans in many suburbs. Democrats’ majority-makers came straight out of suburbs around Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City, along with four districts in Orange County, California and elsewhere. Many of the gains came not from career politicians moving up the traditional ladder of elected offices, but from outside of politics, with 10 coming out of either military or intelligence-community backgrounds, unencumbered by much of the ideological baggage and voting records that kept Democrats from winning in recent years and decades in much of the South and border south. But as bad as it was last year in suburban districts for the GOP, there are still more that they could lose, perhaps if a better Democratic challenger is in place or if the seat becomes open.

And Republican-controlled states enacting laws that effectively ban all abortions threatens to make a bad situation worse for Republicans in many suburbs. This is not to make a moral, ethical, or legal statement, just a political one. A third of the electorate, at most, supports measures this aggressive. It’s been said that Americans are antiabortion and pro-choice. Most don’t like the idea of abortion—many believe there should be some limits and are extremely uncomfortable with late-term abortions—but still take a very dim view of outlawing all or almost all abortions, given the many different circumstances that might lead a woman to contemplate one.

President Trump is a heavy enough lift with many college-educated, suburban, white women. The perception of overwhelmingly male state legislatures telling women what they can and can’t do in very absolute terms is highly problematic.

There was a time when the decisions to set up court tests of abortion laws were made carefully by antiabortion lawyers and strategists on the national level, picking cases very carefully to maximize their chances of victory. Today the decision-making is both decentralized and organic, and apparently by tone-deaf people who seem to oblivious of the consequences to their cause. When the Rev. Pat Robertson thinks an antiabortion measure goes too far, there is a fair chance it’s too far. There isn’t a pro-choice bone in Robertson’s body, but the Yale Law School class of 1955 graduate knows a bad case when he sees one.

This is all a long way of saying that while the Republican majority in the Senate probably shouldn’t be in much danger, if one were going to construct a scenario in which Democrats reach a 50-seat majority (with a White House win) or 51 (without one), an uncompromising assault on legal abortion would likely be an element of it.

Republicans lost a bunch of suburban districts last year. With actions like these, we may find out how many more there are to lose.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on May 20, 2019