The two issues that could disrupt the 2022 elections
Debates over abortion and guns have played a central role in the ongoing geographic resorting of the two predominant political parties. Since the early years of this century, Republicans have consolidated a commanding grip on rural and small-town communities filled with culturally conservative blue-collar voters who generally oppose both legal abortion and most restrictions on gun ownership.
“Two months ago, we would have absolutely waltzed through these places with college-educated suburban White women, because they had no real reason to either break against us or turn out,” he says. “There’s no orange man [Trump] — there was no wedge issue for them.”
Like most Republicans, and even some Democrats, Thomas believes that discontent over inflation and disenchantment over Biden will remain the driving factor in white-collar districts, just as in less affluent places. But, he says, the renewed attention to abortion and gun control has added an element of uncertainty and created an opening for Democrats to change the electoral dynamic in some areas.
“It comes down to what is the national conversation and top issue as we go to November,” Thomas says. “Is it economic driven and a referendum on Biden’s failure? Quite frankly, if those other issues [gun control and abortion] are in the world of parity, Republicans have problems in those seats.”
Democrats’ suburban advance
“These areas had been moving more Democrat,” says former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis, who represented a suburban Northern Virginia seat in the US House. “What you see now are the Democrats in charge, and to the average person the economy is not being managed [well], and so I think it’s going to snap back to some extent.”
Could the landscape shift?
Given such lopsided attitudes among well-educated voters, activists and Democratic operatives believe the sharp contrasts between the parties on guns and abortion could shift the electoral dynamic in suburban battlefields up and down the ballot.
“This renewed focus on gun safety undermines the Republican case in those more educated, affluent, diverse suburban districts that have been at the core of the Democrats’ new majority,” says Ambler of Giffords. “As the salience of gun violence grows with these mass shootings, and the salience of abortion rights grow with the upcoming Supreme Court decision, you are going to see these swing suburban voters enrage themselves all over again over the common cause the Republican Party has made with the extreme right wing of the conservative movement.”
Abortion rights advocates believe a high court decision in the next few weeks overturning Roe would transform the political debate by eliminating what Christina Reynolds, vice president for communications at Emily’s List, a group supporting Democratic female candidates who favor abortion rights, calls the “believability gap”: the skepticism among voters who back abortion rights that the right to abortion, in place for so long, really could be rescinded. “Fundamentally people believe you should have the freedom to make your own decisions,” she says.
Democrats and advocacy groups don’t expect that more attention to abortion rights and gun control will cause Republican women who agree with them on the issues to abandon GOP candidates. But they do think the renewed prominence of these controversies could tip some independent women dissatisfied with Biden and inflation. Even more important, they believe these questions could increase turnout among key groups in their coalition that might otherwise be less motivated to vote in a midterm, particularly college-educated, single and younger women.
Chris Taylor, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says the contrasts between the parties on guns and abortion could energize Democratic-leaning voters who turned out in huge numbers to oppose Trump but may feel less urgency now. Gun control will “be front and center, and the same thing on abortion: It all falls under the same banner of you may not agree with us on everything but these guys are way too extreme for you to vote for them,” he says.
The enthusiasm gap
Thomas, the Republican consultant, agrees that in many white-collar areas it will be difficult for Republican candidates to win a debate centered on views about those two polarizing issues. And he agrees the increased attention to both concerns will likely rejuvenate Democrats’ small-donor fundraising, strengthening their capacity to defend more seats. But he remains optimistic that even in suburban districts, the campaign debate won’t lastingly shift toward guns and abortion. “I do feel pretty confident that the economy, housing, inflation, gas, food shortages are going to be there, and … if that kind of stuff is driving the media conversation, then Democrats are going to get wiped,” he predicts.
It’s not only the overriding public concern about inflation and the economy; the extent of electoral re-sorting that has already occurred also could dilute the impact of these issues this fall, Davis argues. Most voters, he notes, who disagree with either party on abortion and guns have already migrated toward the other — meaning a renewed focus on those issues isn’t likely to shift many more voters now. “I think it helps the Democratic base, which was starting to crater, but I don’t think it’s the game changer it might have been 20 years ago,” Davis says.
Murphy says that ultimately both parties must compete on both fronts: Democrats need to respond to voter concerns about the economy and Republicans have to defend their differences with suburban voters on abortion and guns. “I think it’s not so binary, because I do think these races are going to include a mix,” Murphy says. “Republicans will have to debate these issues and Democrats will have to show their economic strength.”
Most analysts in both parties agree that so many voters are expressing unhappiness over the country’s direction that Republicans are likely to post significant gains in November no matter how much attention shifts from the economy to abortion rights and gun control. The real issue isn’t whether Democrats can reverse that wave, it’s whether they can blunt it by holding on to some of the white-collar suburban voters who looked ready to move back toward the GOP after stampeding away from the party under Trump.
“There was a big enthusiasm gap until Kavanaugh, and Kavanaugh helped Republicans win net two Senate seats and probably cut their House losses from being worse,” Wasserman says. While Democrats have little chance of holding the House, he adds, “I can see a scenario where, close to the election, Democrats’ voters tune in because everything is existential in this era and [the Democratic losses] are not as bad as forecast.”
In this blustery electoral environment, that may be about the most Democrats can hope for.