Voices: Democrats grapple with difficult math as they try to save abortion

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Republicans have worked on this for decades. How long will Democrats have to work to reverse it?  (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Republicans have worked on this for decades. How long will Democrats have to work to reverse it? (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Earlier this week, California Governor Gavin Newsom railed against Democrats in Washington for not firmly defending abortion rights in response to the threat they face after a leaked draft opinion showed that the Supreme Court would likely overturn Roe v Wade.

“Where the hell is my party? Where’s the Democratic Party?” Newsom said. "Why aren’t we standing up more firmly, more resolutely? This is a concerted, coordinated effort and yes, they’re winning. They are. They have been. We need to acknowledge that. Where’s the counter-offensive?”

On Thursday, your reporter asked Mark Kelly of Arizona, perhaps this year’s most endangered Senate Democrat, what he would say to voters who think the same thing that Newsom said out loud: Democrats have the majority in both houses of Congress and the White House but they can’t even protect abortion rights. Kelly had a simple response.

"As you know, it’s math," he said and then repeated himself. "Math."

And therein lies the problem: Public opinion polling shows that more Americans think Roe should not be overturned. In some swing states, that number is even higher, including in Kelly’s home state, where 54 per cent of Arizonans think abortion should stay mostly legal, according to the New York Times. Nevada Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto faces an equally tough race, but 63 per cent of people in the Silver State think abortion should remain mostly legal. In Pennsylvania, where retiring Republican Pat Toomey has given Democrats one of their best shots at a pickup, 53 per cent of voters say abortion should be mostly legal, compared to 41 per cent who say it should be mostly illegal.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough Democratic Senators to pass legislation to codify protections for abortion. Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition to the Women’s Health Protection Act likely won’t change, which means Republicans don’t even need to invoke a filibuster to stop it. Democrats are now paying a price for failing to beat Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins in 2020 despite the fact Joe Biden won her state; they are feeling the long-term impact of Bill Nelson failing to do any Spanish outreach in heavily Latino Florida in 2018, and of their galling losses in Wisconsin in 2010 and 2016.

That means that short of taking action, the best that Democrats can do is look like they are doing something.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer plans to file cloture on their proposed Women’s Health Protection Act to set up a vote next week, but even if Democrats could count on mustering 51 votes, they’d still need to get Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema to discard the filibuster, which they have so far refused to do. Democrats are trying the same half-baked strategy they adopted earlier this year when they held a vote on voting rights: put forward futile legislation purely to show one constituency group (in the former case, Black voters; in the latter, women) that they care enough to hold a vote even if they are powerless to actually do anything.

When I asked Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey what he would say to Democratic voters who feel dejected, he told them to focus on the long game.

“The Republicans worked for decades,” said the affable Booker, who legitimately loves everyone he’s ever met, before correcting himself. “Some conservatives worked for decades to get to this moment. We have to get to this idea that this is going to be a long effort. But even as close as this coming midterm, we could put a Congress in place that could get to reverse a lot of the damage that was done.”

Booker’s words echo those of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who talked about how the GOP was “plotting for decades” to overturn Roe. But playing “the long game” is cold comfort for many Democrats who want to see protections for Roe immediately, or people who fear they will live in an “abortion desert”.

And even then, the arithmetic could fall either way. That same Times survey showed that in Georgia, where incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock will likely face former University of Georgia running back Herschel Walker, 49 per cent of voters say abortion should be mostly legal, while 46 per cent say it should be mostly illegal. In North Carolina, another open seat where Cheri Beasley hopes to flip a GOP seat, 49 per cent of Tar Heels support keeping abortion mostly legal and 44 per cent support it being mostly illegal.

And the Senate math as it stands is why Kelly, a former astronaut who told reporters he had to take his share of math courses for his aeronautical engineering master’s degree, knows there’s little chance Democrats’ legislation can launch.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting