For Democrats who are worried about the 2024 election, and plenty of us are, the results on Tuesday had to be encouraging. For decades, Democrats have argued that we were just one vote (on the Supreme Court) away from losing Roe v. Wade. Republicans, for their part, presented themselves as “pro-life” without having to detail exactly what that meant. Even though polls showed that the country supported Roe v. Wade and generally opposed strict abortion bans, the issue did not move elections, try though Democrats did.

Susan Estrich

Then, with three Trump appointees creating a new majority, the court overruled Roe v. Wade and everything changed. Abortion is an issue that is working for Democrats even in states that lean Republican. And it is working with double-digit margins, as Tuesday’s election in Ohio soundly demonstrated. That state, which twice supported Donald Trump for president, enacted a constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights in the state Constitution. Abortion rights helped propel Democrats to control both houses of the legislature in Virginia. It helped cement a second term for the popular governor of Kentucky, hardly a Democratic stronghold.

Indeed, the one thing that both Republicans and Democrats agreed on Tuesday night was that the issue is working powerfully for Democrats. “Abortion is the No. 1 issue in the 2024 campaign,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat who provided financial support in both Ohio and Virginia, told The New York Times in an interview on Tuesday. “If you’re not talking about protecting women’s reproductive rights as a Democrat, you’re not doing it right.”

For his part, Republican Vivek Ramaswamy summed up the view of many Republicans when he told CNN, “Our pro-life movement, and I am part of it, needs to be better about the way we discuss this issue. There are deep reflections in the Republican Party and in the pro-life movement about how to improve from here.”

Those efforts failed in Virginia, where the popular Republican governor adopted what he called a “common sense” approach to abortion — that is, a ban at 15 weeks with exceptions for rape and incest. It didn’t work. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, one of the new stars of the Republican Party, tried to cast the Democratic position as extreme and the Republican alternative as a “reasonable 15-week limit.” But Republicans failed to take control of the State Senate and lost control of the House of Delegates. And in Kentucky, the incumbent Democrat spent some $2 million on ads featuring a young woman who was raped by her stepfather at the age of 12 to help spotlight the issue.

For his part, Donald Trump has been intentionally vague about his own pro-life position, refusing to commit to exactly what kind of ban he supports and blaming the abortion issue for contributing to his party’s losses in the 2022 midterms. But he has a record of opposing abortion rights, and Democrats have plenty of ammunition to use against him. In a 1999 interview on “Meet the Press,” Trump claimed he was “pro-choice in every respect. … I hate the concept of abortion,” he said, “But still, I just believe in choice.” But running for president in 2016, he changed his tune, going so far as to say that women who receive illegal abortions should be subject to “some sort of punishment.” And campaigning in Iowa this fall, he said, “I got the job done,” the job being overruling Roe v. Wade. “They couldn’t get the job done. I got the job done,” Trump said. “I got it done. With the three Supreme Court justices that I appointed, this issue has been returned to the states, where all legal scholars on both sides said it should be. Of course, now the pro-life community has tremendous negotiating power. You have none when you have Roe v. Wade, they could do whatever they want.”

Trump did indeed get the job done. The question is what it will cost him in 2024. If Tuesday’s results are a sign of what’s to come, it could cost him dearly.

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