Abortion issue has deflated Republicans’ hopes for November; question now is how badly

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer gestures with his left hand as he speaks at a news conference.
New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, seen here at a news conference in July, seems increasingly likely to get another turn as Senate majority leader, as Democratic chances of holding their narrow control of the chamber continue to improve.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

The Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade and ending the nationwide guarantee of abortion rights achieved a goal the Republican Party had pursued for more than four decades. Now, the bill has come due, at a price much higher than many Republicans expected.

Since the ruling in June, Democrats have done significantly better than expected in special elections, culminating Tuesday with a victory in a race for a vacant congressional seat in upstate New York that strategists on both sides thought the Republican would win.

Combine those results with polls that show Democratic Senate candidates leading in a half dozen swing states plus a surge of women registering to vote this summer in several states, and you have the evidence that has caused nonpartisan analysts to drastically scale back their expectations for GOP victories this fall.


Democrats, despondent over President Biden‘s dismal job approval ratings, had feared a wipeout this fall. Now, they have a strong chance of keeping narrow control of the Senate, perhaps even adding a seat to their majority. The House still seems likely to flip to the GOP, but the prospect of Republicans sweeping to a big majority has dissipated.

The possibility of Democrats saving their current tiny majority is “not out of the question,” David Wasserman, whose forecasts for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report have a wide following in both parties, said Wednesday on Twitter.

None of that means Democrats can start popping Champagne corks — Biden remains unpopular, inflation and the economy still top voters’ list of concerns and the political climate could shift again before November. For now, however, the evidence for a resurgence of Democratic fortunes is strong.

A closer race for the House

For the House, few polls look at specific races this far in advance of the election. Instead, surveys frequently ask people which party’s candidate they would vote for if the election were held now. That question, referred to as the generic ballot, has provided a fairly reliable tool to forecast elections for many years.

Before the Supreme Court decision, Republicans had just over a two-and-a-half point lead on that question, according to the average of polls produced by the FiveThirtyEight web site. The GOP’s standing began to decline shortly after the court’s ruling, and Democrats now lead the average by about a half point. In many recent polls, the Democratic lead has been larger, ranging as high as eight points among registered voters in a recent survey by the Republican firm Echelon Insights.

Caveats: Because of gerrymandering, the overall House map tilts slightly Republican. Because of that, if the two parties were to split the nationwide vote for the House evenly, Republicans would be almost certain to take the majority. In 2020, Democrats won the overall House vote by about three percentage points, which yielded their current four-vote majority.


Moreover, the generic ballot is just that, generic. It can give a rough guide to the vote for the House nationwide, but isn’t designed to say anything about specific congressional districts.

Out of the country’s 435 congressional districts, only about 50-60 are competitive. Republicans need only increase their numbers by five seats to take the majority, and Democrats are defending a lot more competitive turf than the GOP this year. The political forecasting site run by Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia lists 27 House races as tossups, including three in California. Of those, Democrats now hold 21.

Special elections this summer have bolstered the polling evidence. Before the Supreme Court decision, Republican candidates in special elections ran well ahead of the mark that former President Trump had set in their districts in 2020 — results that boosted GOP hopes for a big wave.

Since the abortion decision, the picture has flipped. In four contests this summer, Democrats consistently have out-performed what Biden did in their districts two years ago.

Abortion isn’t the only issue helping Democrats: Inflation likely peaked in June, and gas prices have dropped all summer. Biden’s job approval has rebounded a bit. Democrats succeeded this month in passing major legislation on climate change and healthcare, which could help mobilize their voters. Biden’s announcement of debt relief for millions of student-loan borrowers could similarly motivate a large Democratic constituency, although it could also rile up Republican opponents.

But abortion rights were the center of the campaign waged by Pat Ryan, the Democratic candidate in Tuesday’s New York special election, and Democratic candidates nationwide likely will copy what he did. Meantime, some Republican candidates have begun scrubbing their websites to remove previous statements supporting abortion bans.

The issue could have its strongest effect in 22 competitive districts in six states — California and Michigan, where abortion referendums will be on the ballot, and Texas, Wisconsin, Georgia and Ohio, where sweeping bans have been enacted that a majority of the state’s voters oppose, according to Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, who has closely studied public opinion on abortion.

Democratic advantage in the Senate

Individual candidates matter more in Senate races than in the House because voters tend to know more about them. That’s added to Republican difficulties this year.

“Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome” in Senate contests, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell ruefully noted in recent comments in his home state of Kentucky in which he sought to lower expectations for what his side could accomplish.

In Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Republicans have picked Senate candidates backed by Trump who have significant problems.

They’re likely to do the same in New Hampshire when that state holds its primary in mid-September. The leading Republican candidate in the state, retired Gen. Don Bolduc, has defended Confederate emblems as a “symbol of hope,” fanned anti-vaccination theories and repeatedly made false claims about the 2020 election.

The state’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu recently said in a broadcast interview that “I don’t take Bolduc as a serious candidate. I don’t think most people do.” Polls indicate, however, that the state’s primary voters disagree, much to the relief of Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan, who figures to have an easier race against Bolduc than she would against a more centrist opponent.

Polls this summer have shown Democrats leading in most of the competitive Senate races:

  • In Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democrat, has a one-point lead in the polling average over Republican J.D. Vance.
  • In Georgia, incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock leads Republican Herschel Walker by two points.
  • In Nevada, incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has a four-point average lead over Republican Adam Laxalt.
  • In Wisconsin, Democrat Mandela Barnes led incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson by four points in a recent survey by Fox News and seven points in one by Marquette University.
  • In Arizona incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has an average eight-point lead over Republican Blake Masters.
  • And in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, has a nine-point lead over his Republican challenger, Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Among the most competitive races, the only one in which the Democratic candidate doesn’t currently lead is in North Carolina, where Republican Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley are in a tight race.

Caveats: Polls in the Trump era have often understated Republican support, especially in Midwestern states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

In addition, Democratic candidates have raised a lot more money than Republicans in competitive Senate races and have dominated the airwaves this summer. But McConnell’s super-PAC has reserved millions of dollar of advertising time to bail out Vance in Ohio and other lagging GOP candidates. That’s likely to improve GOP fortunes.

In closely divided states like Georgia, a strong Democratic candidate can get to 47 or 48 points in the polls, but not be able to get the last point or two needed for victory simply because most of the remaining undecided voters lean toward the GOP.

In the end, Republicans likely will win at least some of the close contests — Democrats see Cortez Masto and Warnock as the two incumbents at most risk. But the GOP likely will lose the seat they currently hold in Pennsylvania, where incumbent Pat Toomey is retiring.

“There’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said, acknowledging what most independent analysts believe. “Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate.”

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UC Berkeley/L.A. Times poll

Our latest statewide poll with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies rolled out this week. Here are the key findings:

— Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) has taken a wide lead over Rick Caruso as the race for mayor moves into the runoff, Ben Oreskes reported. Bass, who won the June primary by seven points, now leads by 12, the poll found. She has firmed up her base among Democrats, scooping up the lion’s share of support that went to the third- and fourth-place candidates in June.

— Californians have little appetite for a rematch of the 2020 presidential race, with strong majorities of the state’s voters hoping neither Biden nor Trump runs again in two years, Melanie Mason reported.

— Retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna has an early edge over incumbent Alex Villanueva in the runoff for Los Angeles County sheriff, with support for the candidates falling largely along political lines, Alene Tchekmedyian reported.

— A measure to amend the state Constitution to add protections for abortion rights appears on track for victory this fall as the issue of reproductive rights appears to be strongly motivating the state’s voters, Melody Gutierrez reported.

— Nearly a year after crushing a Republican-led recall attempt, Gov. Gavin Newsom leads his GOP challenger by more than 2 to 1 in the 2022 governor’s race, even though a majority of voters express dissatisfaction about where California is headed, Phil Willon reported.

— Most Californians agree the state’s drought situation is very serious, but only a minority of voters say they and their families have been significantly affected by the current water shortage, Ian James reported.

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The latest from Washington

— Eli Stokols reported on Biden’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt.

— The new program would massively benefit California borrowers, who by their sheer numbers hold the nation’s largest share of the $1.6 trillion in federal loan debt owed by 43 million current and former college and trade school students across the country, Teresa Watanabe and Debbie Truong reported. About 4 million Californians hold an average student loan debt of $37,783, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. On average, however, that’s a lot lower than in nearly all other states because of the state’s relatively low tuition for public universities and its generous financial aid programs.

— Jon Healey wrote this guide to who is eligible for the debt forgiveness.

— The Biden administration and Iran are crawling toward reviving the landmark nuclear accord that would delay Tehran’s building of a bomb, Tracy Wilkinson reported, but obstacles still threaten to send everyone home empty-handed. The two sides have been negotiating for nearly 18 months through indirect talks in Vienna, with the Europeans shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and Iranian delegations. The goal is to bring Washington and Tehran back into compliance with a deal signed in 2015 by President Obama and six other nations, which significantly reduced Iran’s nuclear ambitions until President Trump jettisoned the pact three years later.

— The Department of Justice has released a 2019 memo to then-Atty. Gen. William Barr advising him not to pursue obstruction of justice charges against Trump related to the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. As Sarah Wire reported, the memo argued that Trump’s attempts to influence the investigation — including urging those in his circle not to “flip” on him, firing the head of the FBI and attempting to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — did not constitute obstruction of justice because Trump thought the investigation was politically motivated.

The latest from California

— Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has accused Newsom of treating California residents like “peasants.” He has claimed California’s policies on crime, homelessness and the pandemic have prompted residents to flee. He’s crowed about California’s population loss. He may not like much about California, but DeSantis is more than happy to visit the state to scoop up cash for his reelection bid. And as Seema Mehta reported, he’s not alone. Californians have donated more than $489 million in the current 2021-22 midterm election cycle to federal candidates, political action committees, parties and outside spending groups from across the nation through late July, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Two-thirds of the donations to candidates and parties went to Democrats while Republicans received 30%.

— The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to send a measure to the ballot to speed up the installation of bike routes, bus lanes and other transportation projects aimed at making the city safer and more welcoming for bicyclists, pedestrians and bus riders, Rachel Uranga and David Zahniser reported. The initiative, planned for the 2024 ballot, would force city agencies to make those changes to some of L.A.’s busiest boulevards each time crews do major road work on those streets.

— California lawmakers on Wednesday rejected legislation that would have allowed West Hollywood, San Francisco and Palm Springs to authorize weekend alcohol service until 4 a.m. at bars, nightclubs and restaurants. As Phil Willon reported, backers of the bill said it would help small businesses that had been hurt by the pandemic, but opponents said it could lead to more alcohol-impaired drivers on the streets.

Lori McClintock, the wife of U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), died in December after taking an herbal remedy that is touted for treating high cholesterol, according to a coroner’s report. Noah Goldberg reported that the Sacramento County coroner said in the death report that McClintock died of dehydration caused by “adverse effects of white mulberry leaf ingestion.”

— Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson resigned from his position as an interim replacement for indicted Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas on Thursday, days after a judge barred him from carrying out his duties at City Hall. As David Zahniser reported, the resignation is the latest in a saga that began when Wesson was appointed to fill in for Ridley-Thomas, despite objections from opponents who said he was barred from the job by term limits. A judge this week agreed with the opponents and issued an injunction barring Wesson from doing the job.

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