ATLANTA — For months, Republicans have been poised to make inroads in the diverse and economically comfortable suburbs of cities like Atlanta. The moderate communities here swung toward Democrats in recent years, led by women appalled by Donald Trump. But lately, rampant inflation and rising crime have taken a political toll on President Joe Biden and his party.
Sandra Sloan, 82, is the kind of voter Republicans are counting on to help them reclaim this contested section of a newly purple state. Yet Sloan, a retired high school teacher who lives in Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead neighborhood, is uneasy about the party for one main reason.
“I am a Republican, but I still believe that it’s a woman’s right to choose,” Sloan said.
Sloan said she had followed the news recently about a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade, as well as the passage of anti-abortion legislation in states like Texas and Oklahoma. She said she was not sure how she would ultimately vote in the fall, but abortion rights would be a factor.
“We still don’t know, after the draft, when it’s finished what it will say,” Sloan said. “But leaving it to just men — I’m sorry, no.”
It is voters like Sloan, in communities like Buckhead, who may represent the greatest challenge for Republicans in a renewed national debate over the rights of women to legally terminate a pregnancy.
Should the Supreme Court strike down Roe in the sweeping manner of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion, it would unleash a ferocious state-by-state battle over abortion regulations — and introduce a powerful new issue into the calculus of voters who might otherwise be inclined to treat the midterm election as an up-or-down vote on Biden’s performance. Moderate women who have tilted back toward the Republicans might now have second thoughts; young people who feel let down by Biden could well find motivation to vote Democratic out of a feeling of fear and indignation about the Supreme Court.
The urgency of the abortion issue could be particularly intense in Georgia, where state lawmakers in 2019 passed a ban on abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, knowing at the time that existing Supreme Court precedent would forbid the law from going into effect. If that precedent is overturned, then Georgia voters could find themselves living under one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country.
National Democrats have indicated they intend to campaign on the issue before the midterms in November. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats voted to provide a broad guarantee of abortion rights nationwide, although they knew the bill lacked enough support to overcome Republican opposition.
Many Republicans, however, are hesitant to discuss abortion outright. On the campaign trail, Republican candidates have been encouraged by party leaders to focus on the economy, crime and the border, according to a memo from the National Republican Senatorial Committee obtained by Axios.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat running for attorney general of Georgia, said she expected the abortion rights issue to eclipse other concerns as a top consideration for voters.
Previously, Jordan said she had been campaigning on issues related to the cost of living, vowing to crack down on price gouging. The leaked Supreme Court opinion “completely changed the conversation,” she said.
“I think fundamental rights is a little bit above the day-to-day economic issues that have been batted around,” Jordan said.
In closely divided states and congressional districts around the country, many moderate voters suddenly find themselves choosing between a Democratic Party that has disappointed them since taking power in 2021, and a Republican Party newly emboldened to enact a right-wing social agenda that makes many voters deeply uneasy.
That could create a major challenge for Republicans in their efforts to win back the centrist and center-right communities that shunned them during the Trump years and turned America’s suburbs — from areas near Atlanta and Philadelphia to Minneapolis and Salt Lake City — into at least a temporary political desert for the party. That exodus was particularly pronounced among centrist and even Republican-leaning white women, a constituency that tends to favor abortion rights with modest limitations.
Christine Matthews, a pollster who has studied the abortion issue and worked in the past for Republicans, said she expected abortion rights to become a top concern of the 2022 elections. But she said it was too soon to gauge how voters would prioritize abortion rights as an issue relative to other close-to-home considerations, like the cost and availability of consumer goods.
“We’ve never been in a situation like this,” Matthews said, adding, “We are in a situation where abortion rights are now being threatened in a way they haven’t been in nearly 50 years.”
Voters, she added, were likely to see six-week abortion bans like Georgia’s as “well outside the mainstream.”
National Republicans have attempted to mute the political impact of Roe by urging their candidates to focus on unpopular elements of the Democratic Party’s position on abortion, shifting the focus from the hard-line views of the right and making Democrats defend their opposition to most limits on abortion. In Washington, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, acknowledged it was possible that Republicans might seek to ban abortion at the federal level but stopped well short of pledging to do so.
Some Republicans have been far less guarded about their intentions on abortion regulation. Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a conservative Republican who signed the six-week ban, is facing a primary challenge from a former senator, David Perdue, who is demanding that Kemp call a special session of the state legislature to outlaw abortion altogether.
Other swing states have passed strict abortion laws, including a 15-week ban in Arizona, and Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have introduced a measure to ban the procedure after six weeks. The most extreme restrictions have been proposed in deeply conservative states like Louisiana, where legislators debated a bill that would have classified abortion as a form of homicide, and would have made it possible to bring criminal charges against women who end their pregnancies. Lawmakers scrapped the bill Thursday before it reached a vote.
In Wisconsin, where the offices of an anti-abortion group were set on fire Sunday, Republicans are defending a Senate seat and seeking to defeat Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat. A crackdown on abortion could alienate some of the moderate voters who would otherwise be reliable Republican votes. The state already has a dormant law, enacted in 1849, that bans abortion in nearly all cases. The current Republican front-runner for governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, has said she totally opposes abortion.
Plenty of voters feel more conflicted. Nancy Turtenwald, 64, of West Allis, Wisconsin, an inner-ring suburb of Milwaukee, said she had voted Republican her entire life but also supported abortion rights. Turtenwald said she would prefer that abortion not be the main issue in the country’s political discourse, citing access to health care, the cost of gas and housing, and the availability of baby formula as more important issues.
If Roe is overturned and Republicans attempt to ban abortion, Turtenwald said, she will consider crossing over to vote for Democrats. “I think a lot of women would,” she said.
A Pew Research Center poll published last week found that about 3 in 5 Americans believed that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, although many of those people said they preferred some restrictions on the procedure.
In Michigan, Republicans are seeking to defeat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democratic rising star, and pick up several congressional seats. Similar to Wisconsin, Michigan never repealed an archaic law that makes abortion a felony, meaning that the procedure could be instantly criminalized in the event of a court decision that closely resembled Alito’s draft.
The state’s Democratic attorney general, Dana Nessel, has announced that she would not enforce that law; like Whitmer, she is facing a competitive fight for reelection.
Rose Deveson is a 60-year-old homemaker from Birmingham, Michigan, a town in politically split Oakland County about 25 minutes from downtown Detroit. Deveson said she had been a reliable Republican voter for 20 years until disgust with Trump drove her to vote for Democrats.
Deveson said she would still consider voting for Republican candidates on a case-by-case basis, mainly because she found the party appealing on fiscal issues. But she said she could not embrace candidates who led an attack on abortion rights.
“I cannot believe what they are trying to do,” Deveson said. “The fiscals will work themselves out, but this is about our rights and what kind of country we want to live in.”
Simona Vancea, 38, of Sterling Heights, Michigan, described herself as a “pro-choice” voter who cast her ballot for Trump in 2020 because she believed he would run the country better than Biden.
Vancea said she believed that “every woman should be able to do whatever she feels comfortable with” when it comes to pregnancy and abortion. But a decision striking down Roe would not change her overall inclination to support the Republican Party, she said.
“I would vote pro-choice on that specific issue, but I still sway more to the Republican side,” Vancea said.
In many states, however, the internal politics of the Republican Party are already pushing its candidates even further rightward on the issue, testing the tolerance of voters who like the party’s agenda on other issues but oppose the strictest limits on abortion rights.
Jessica Wood, a stay-at-home mother in Suwanee, Georgia, grew politically active last year when she organized against pandemic-driven restrictions in schools. Wood, who identifies as libertarian, said she was frustrated with Democratic leaders in Washington but was not sure if she would vote Republican or cast her ballot for a third party this year.
Wood said she was “100%” supportive of women having access to abortion, although she would never feel comfortable having an abortion herself. She said the possibility of a six-week ban going into effect gave her pause.
“There’s just so many gray areas,” Wood said. “I feel like people are just going to do it anyway. So it might as well be safe and legal.”