LEESBURG, Va. — House Democratic leaders are vowing to make abortion their top issue on the campaign trail this year, betting that Republican efforts to roll back women’s reproductive rights will drive voters to the polls to the distinct advantage of President Biden and his allies in Congress.
Gathered in Northern Virginia for their annual strategy retreat, the Democrats are hearing from experts — and honing their message — on a host of issues, from climate change and infrastructure to labor unions and the economy.
But rising above them all, party leaders said, will be the fight to protect abortion rights and draw the contrast with Republican lawmakers — both state and federal — who are moving to ban or otherwise restrict abortion access in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“This is the pivotal issue of 2024,” Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), the Democratic whip, told reporters at the lush Lansdowne Resort in the suburbs of Washington. “It is the fight that will determine the trajectory of the next four years, and the next four decades.”
The focus on abortion rights has paid dividends for Democrats in recent years.
In the midterm elections in 2022, voters were widely expected to grant Republicans control of the House — with a considerable numbers advantage— and perhaps also flip the Senate.
Instead, Republicans secured only a tiny House majority, while Democrats retained control of the upper chamber — stunning results for an election cycle when the party of the incumbent president has historically suffered steep losses.
The outcome was broadly seen as a referendum on the toppling of Roe just months earlier. And Democratic leaders said the subsequent efforts by Republican-led states to scale back abortion access are alienating voters across demographics.
“Wherever we travel across the country, whoever we talk to, abortion is top of mind for our constituents and for voters,” Clark said. “Millions of people are suffering under the brutality of MAGA abortion bans. And those in states that still have protected abortion access are scared of the GOP’s march to a national abortion ban.”
Yet the Democrats’ strategy is something of a gamble. The Supreme Court’s Roe decision will be more than two years old by the time voters go to the polls in November. And some recent polls indicate that immigration has overtaken all other issues — including inflation and abortion — as the most pressing concern on the minds of voters amid the ongoing crisis on the southern border.
Still, Republicans are hardly running away from the abortion issue.
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), a staunch evangelical with a long history opposing abortion rights, has leaned into that fight since taking the gavel last year — a dynamic that’s energized the conservative Christians who make up the GOP’s base.
And former President Trump, who appointed the three conservative justices who ultimately helped topple Roe, is touting his anti-abortion track record as he moves closer to securing the Republican presidential nomination.
“Nobody has done more in that regard,” he said last month during a town hall in Iowa.
Democrats are eager to have that debate. And they’ve been encouraged by recent polls indicating that an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose laws banning abortions without exceptions. They’re vowing to highlight the plights of women who have been denied abortions in deep red states like Texas, even when the health of the mother was at risk.
In one recent high-profile case, Texas’s conservative attorney general threatened to file criminal charges against any doctor or hospital that provided an abortion to a woman despite a fatal genetic condition having been detected in the fetus and doctors’ warnings that giving birth posed a threat to her health. She fled the state to get the procedure elsewhere.
“For those who pretend to believe in exceptions, or hide behind language that says there are exceptions, make no mistake about it: Texas has proven that Republicans do not believe in, and do not want, exceptions — not even when it’s threatening the life of a mother, not even when it threatens her ability to have children in the future,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (Texas), a co-chair of the Democrats’ messaging arm, told reporters in Leesburg.
“This is a very dire moment for American women.”