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Galvanized by abortion fight, Orange County women could upend congressional races

Seal Beach resident Danielle Sams stands in front of the city's pier.
Seal Beach resident Danielle Sams often votes for Republicans, but say’s she’ll reconsider that in light of the Supreme Court draft opinion overturning federal protection for abortion.
(Priscella Vega / Los Angeles Times)

The Supreme Court’s expected decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade could galvanize Democrats and turn some reliable Republican voters — especially women — blue, according to polls and interviews. It’s a small bit of hope for Democrats, who are widely expected to lose control of Congress in this year’s election.

Polling shows that women are more likely than men to consider a candidate’s position on abortion when deciding how to vote. Women who are college graduates are also more supportive of abortion rights.

These college-educated women could be pivotal in congressional races in Orange County, where they make up more than 40% of voters — as well as in contests in similar swaths of the nation, such as the suburbs of Atlanta and Phoenix, said Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant who favors abortion rights.

The landmark 1973 court ruling asserted a constitutional right for a woman to have an abortion. If the decision is reversed as detailed in a draft opinion leaked last week, abortion would be inaccessible in roughly half the 50 U.S. states.

Overturning Roe could be “an earthquake” that upends the political leanings of suburban women, said Madrid, who has studied that voter bloc for years.

“This is a really discerning, sophisticated, informed voter that knows exactly what they are voting for. They’re voting really strategically,” he said. “They are voting against extremes. They are not voting ideologically.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the California primary election. How and where to vote. Who are the candidates and what are the issues?

Danielle Sams, 37, typically votes Republican, including for President Trump in 2020. After hearing of the likely end of Roe vs. Wade, the registered nurse said candidates’ views on abortion could influence her votes.

“I am a ‘my body, my choice’ person because I work in healthcare. I believe in being able to choose,” Sams said as her 2-year-old played on a scooter near the Seal Beach Pier.

Sams, who is registered as a nonpartisan voter, lives in Seal Beach, which is in one of four primarily Orange County congressional districts that are expected to be among the most competitive in this year’s midterm election.

While these races are unlikely to determine which party controls Congress, they will help decide the margin, and therefore the degree of power the GOP wields.

California’s 2022 primary election ballot includes races for governor, attorney general, the Legislature and Congress, as well as local contests.

A crowd demonstrating for abortion rights with signs in English and Spanish.
Hundreds protest for abortion rights outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles after last week’s leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe vs. Wade.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Recent elections showed the clout of college-educated suburban women. In 2016, though Trump won the presidential election, these voters helped Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton win the popular vote and prevail in historic red bastions including Orange County, which last voted for a Democrat for president during the Great Depression.

Two years later, they were key to Democrats regaining control of Congress, enabling the party to flip 16 GOP-held districts where college-educated women made up at least 40% of the electorate. (Republicans also lost in every Democratic-led district with a similar number of women with at least a bachelor’s degree.)

Then, in 2020, college graduates of both sexes helped power Democrat Joe Biden to victory in the presidential race, including in battleground states such as Michigan.

An April poll by the Economist and YouGov found that only 20% of American voters believed that the Supreme Court would definitely or was likely to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

“Now it’s not a hypothetical,” Madrid said. “It’s a real-life scenario.”

A draft opinion circulated among Supreme Court justices suggests that earlier this year a majority of them had thrown support behind overturning the 1973 case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide, according to a report in Politico.

Other Republicans are skeptical that the abortion ruling would sway voters in California, given the state’s expansive protections for access to abortion and other reproductive healthcare. They argue that Democrats, who last week proposed an amendment to the state Constitution that would enshrine the right to abortion, are trying to deflect from the real problems facing residents.

“Nothing changes in California. This decision simply says state laws will prevail, and California continues to be the most advantageous place to live if you’re seeking an abortion,” said Jon Fleischman, a former executive director of the state Republican Party who lives in Yorba Linda. “When someone’s turning out to vote, if you’re from California, are you more concerned about the price of your gasoline or abortion access?”

Fleischman, who is against abortion, allowed that the politics of the issue may vary in other parts of the country.

“If you’re in Florida or one of these other states currently deciding how to legislate on the abortion issue, it’s a lot more salient than in the most pro-choice state in the country,” he said.

California’s 2022 primary election is Tuesday. Here’s how to cast a ballot.

Retired nursing aide Joanne Gyr, 87, disagrees. The Laguna Woods resident said she has empathy for women everywhere. She remembers hearing stories about young women bleeding to death after unsafe abortions before Roe legalized the procedure across the nation.

“They’d go to quack doctors,” Gyr said.

The registered nonpartisan voter typically casts her ballot for Republicans because she believes Democratic policy is overreaching — “So wild!” in Gyr’s words. But she said she would not vote for a GOP candidate who opposed abortion rights.

“I feel very strongly about it,” said Gyr, who lives in a district that covers much of the Orange County coast as well as inland cities including Costa Mesa and Irvine. Democratic Rep. Katie Porter and Republican Scott Baugh are competing to represent this district.

Abortion activists on both sides were preparing for an election battle, but the leak of Supreme Court draft opinion on Roe vs. Wade has sped up plans.

Two women standing in a parking lot, one with her arm around the other.
Long Beach State student Nadya Rodriguez says the expected reversal of Roe vs. Wade may prompt her to get involved in politics. Her mother, Magdalena Rodriguez, right, disagrees with her daughter’s opinion on abortion.
(Priscella Vega / Los Angeles Times)

Jodi Hicks, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, also thinks that Californians’ concerns cross states lines. They have relatives in other states, send their children to college outside California, and may work for a company that is based somewhere with less protection for reproductive rights, which could affect their health insurance coverage, she said.

Hicks and other abortion rights supporters acknowledged that among some voters who share their views, there hasn’t been as great a focus on reproductive rights in recent years as on other causes.

“This radically changes and has put in the forefront for everyone what it means when rights we expected to be safe and secure are now on the line,” Hicks said. “There’s an entire generation that has never lived without that protection. This will be the first time a generation of folks’ children will have fewer rights than they grew up under.”

Those who favor abortion rights point to what they see as another threat: If Republicans gain control of the House, the Senate and the White House, they could enact a federal ban on abortion, said Democratic Rep. Mike Levin of San Juan Capistrano. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell buttressed this idea when he said in a USA Today story published Saturday that a national ban is “possible” if Roe is overturned.

“Voters in our district and voters across the country have a right to know where candidates stand on this issue before they vote,” Levin said.

One of Levin’s GOP rivals argues that Democrats and the media are overstating women’s support for abortion rights as well as the issue’s potential impact on the midterm election.

“What I’m hearing on the ground is a lot of Hispanics in my district — they’re pro-life Hispanics. A lot of the women I’m speaking to, especially in the religious community, they’re fired up,” said Oceanside City Councilman Christopher Rodriguez, a combat veteran and the father of seven. He opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or when the woman’s health is endangered.

Democrats plan to make the expected ruling a centerpiece of their campaigns.

The overturning of Roe “will be a defining issue in the race,” said Nathan Click, spokesman for Democrat Asif Mahmood, a Tustin physician who is the most prominent challenger to GOP Rep. Young Kim of La Habra.

“On one side, you have a doctor who has counseled patients making difficult decisions about their health,” Click said. “On the other, you have an anti-choice member of Congress who has consistently sided with far-right attempts to outlaw abortion.”

Kim’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

A woman standing with a shopping cart next to a car filled with groceries.
“It’s unfair women’s rights would be impeded” if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, says Cypress resident Molly Papp, who quickly updated her voter registration after last week’s leak.
(Priscella Vega / Los Angeles Times)

Women are not monolithic. While 63% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 35% believe it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a March poll by the Pew Research Center.

Jackie Cruz, 33, said she became an abortion opponent after experiencing two miscarriages and seeing the tiny fetuses. She said she realized, “This is a life.”

When she learned about the Supreme Court’s draft opinion, she was excited to see the potential for the nation’s policies to move in a direction that aligns with her beliefs.

“I did have a feeling it would happen,” she said after exercising at Great Park in Irvine.

The Yorba Linda resident, a small-business owner and registered Republican who voted for Democrat Barack Obama and later backed Trump, said she hoped the focus going forward is on educating people about how to prevent pregnancy.

Regardless of voters’ political leanings, it seems that the court’s decision would prompt some off the sidelines.

Nadya Rodriguez, 20, was stunned when she learned about the draft opinion. The registered Democrat, an abortion rights supporter, said she doesn’t typically follow politics, but the expected ruling may move her to get involved — though she isn’t sure where to start.

“Women should have rights over their bodies,” said the Cal State Long Beach student, who lives in Hawaiian Gardens, in the district where GOP Rep. Michelle Steel of Seal Beach is running against Democrat Jay Chen, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer from Hacienda Heights.

Molly Papp, a 35-year-old therapist, recently moved from Long Beach to Cypress to buy a home.

Wearing a red shirt that read, “Feminism: The radical notion that women should have the same social, economic, & political rights as men,” the mother of two young boys said she always votes for Democrats. Her husband is a Republican; they avoid talking politics with each other.

As she loaded cartons of green grapes and bags of frozen organic blueberries into the trunk of her car at the Costco in Cypress, she said she had put off changing her voter registration when she moved.

After reading about the draft opinion, Papp said, she immediately went online to update her information.

“It’s unfair women’s rights would be impeded,” she said.


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