By Steve Peoples, The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Vulnerable Democrats from Nevada to New Hampshire are promising to make abortion a centerpiece of their political strategy heading into the midterm elections, betting that an intense focus on the divisive issue can rally their voters to beat back a red wave and preserve their narrow majorities in Congress.

Strategists in both parties suggest it may not be so easy.

Democrats have been sounding the alarm on abortion rights in nearly every election cycle this century, including Terry McAuliffe’s loss in last month’s Virginia governor’s race. In most cases, it’s Republicans who have shown to be more motivated by the issue.

Still, as the Supreme Court’s conservative majority signals a willingness to weaken or reverse the landmark Roe v. Wade precedent, Democrats insist they can convince voters that the threat to women’s health is real and present in a way it wasn’t before.

“This isn’t crying wolf. This is actually happening,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is facing a difficult reelection test in Nevada, said in an Associated Press interview. She took to the Senate floor Wednesday and warned, “The reproductive freedom of women everywhere is in jeopardy,” before casting her Republican opponents as “anti-abortion extremists” in the interview.

FILE – Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., leaves a Democratic strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The new intensity is prompted by the high court’s deliberation over a Mississippi law presenting the most serious challenge to abortion rights in decades. In nearly two hours of arguments Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority suggested they may uphold a Mississippi law banning all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and possibly allow states to ban abortion much earlier in pregnancy. Current law allows states to regulate but not ban abortion up until the point of fetal viability, at roughly 24 weeks.

The court’s final ruling is expected in June, just ahead of midterm elections that will decide the balance of power in Congress and in statehouses across the country.

Already braced for a rough year, Democrats have been searching for an issue that can both energize a base deflated by slow progress on various issues in Washington and repair the party’s strained relationship with suburban voters, who may be drifting back toward the GOP in the months since former President Donald Trump left office.

Abortion rights could be it, but it’s not necessarily a silver bullet, said Democratic pollster Molly Murphy, who recently surveyed voters across several battleground states on the issue.

“It’s the question I ask myself,” she said.

Democrats likely will not win on abortion if they simply recycle the arguments that Republicans are trying to roll back abortion rights, Murphy said. To be successful, they must argue that Republicans are spending their time and energy attacking women’s reproductive rights at the expense of issues like the economy, the pandemic and health care. She also encouraged Democrats to focus on Republican-backed measures, like one in effect in Texas, that would penalize health care professionals and the women involved in some abortion cases.

Murphy’s guidance acknowledged the nuances of public opinion on abortion rights.

Public Opinion

A June AP-NORC poll showed 57% of Americans said that in general abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But the same poll showed many Americans question whether a woman should be able to get a legal abortion “for any reason,” and most said abortion after the first trimester should be restricted.

In the second trimester, about a third said abortion should usually — but not always — be illegal, while roughly as many said it should always be illegal. And a majority — 54% — said abortion in the third trimester should always be illegal.

Privately, some Republicans concede that a wave of dramatic new state restrictions on abortion that could follow the court’s ruling could change the conversation and disrupt their momentum heading into 2022. Twelve states have “trigger laws” that would immediately ban all or nearly all abortions if Roe is overturned, and other GOP-led states would likely move quickly as well. But Republicans also express confidence in their ability to focus on other issues.

That was the case last month in Virginia’s race for governor, where Democrats and their allies invested heavily in trying to tie GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin to a new Republican-backed Texas law that bans most abortions. Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s closing message centered on both former President Donald Trump and abortion.

And while Youngkin’s campaign privately worried that the abortion focus might hurt him, particularly among suburban women, Youngkin prevailed in part by shifting the conversation toward parents’ frustration with local education.

A group of anti-abortion protesters pray together in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“I didn’t see abortion as a big issue,” said Linda Brooks, who chairs the Virginia Democratic Party’s women’s caucus, pointing instead to schools and Trump as the biggest factors in her state’s recent elections. “It’s just not on people’s’ minds.”

Only 6% of Virginia voters called abortion the most important issue facing the state, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate.

In fact, the issue seems more relevant for Republicans. In last year’s presidential election, VoteCast found that the 3% of voters who said abortion was the most important issue facing the country voted for Trump over Democrat Joe Biden, 89% to 9%.

A significant portion of the electorate simply doesn’t believe that the court will overturn Roe, acknowledged Jenny Lawson, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s vice president of organizing and engagement campaigns. But Lawson said she thinks that could change quickly.

“The court is doing that work for us,” Lawson said. “The world has changed. What happened yesterday was earth shaking.”

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