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Will the right-wing Supreme Court hurt Republicans in the US midterm elections?

The majority of voters favour gun control and abortion rights – in opposition to recent Court decisions.

By Emily Tamkin

This year’s Independence Day was uniquely American: 4 July celebrations were targeted by mass shooters. Several people were killed by a young white man in Highland Park, a heavily Jewish neighbourhood outside of Chicago, during a holiday parade. As news updates rolled in, reports broke that there was another attack during 4 July celebrations in Philadelphia – this time, two police officers were shot.

In the hours following the mass shooting in Highland Park, President Joe Biden, speaking at an event for military families, referenced the attack saying, “Each day we’re reminded there’s nothing guaranteed about our democracy, nothing guaranteed about our way of life. We have to fight for it, defend it and earn it by voting.” Unsurprisingly, the response disappointed many on the left. Democrats currently control the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Yet the bipartisan gun control legislation that passed in June – prompted by the 24 May school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the first such measures passed in decades – did not prohibit the purchase of assault rifles and would not have stopped this massacre.

The Democratic Party would, its leaders say, push through tougher gun control, but passing legislation would require, at present, ten Republican senators to get on board. And though the majority of Americans favour some gun control, the Republican Party has made it clear that it will block any legislation. Then on 23 June, the six right-wing justices on the Supreme Court loosened existing restrictions by striking down a New York state law that prohibited carrying a concealed weapon. In the wake of a series of high-profile mass shootings, could gun violence and the unwillingness of right-wing politicians to take serious measures to curb it hurt Republicans at the polls?

It’s unlikely. The Supreme Court decision may have been deeply disappointing to those who favour gun control, and it will have consequences, but it is unlikely to be a major shake-up to American life. There is, however, another Supreme Court decision that could tip the scales – and not necessarily in favour of the Republicans.

That is abortion.

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[See also: Why the US midterm elections matter]

As Daniel Schlozman, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, told the New Statesman, the nature of midterm elections is that voters tend to move against the sitting president’s party. At the moment, Biden is particularly unpopular and inflation is “a ready-made issue”. But since Roe vs Wade was overturned on 24 June, abortion has become another pressing issue for voters.

It was already hard for many people to get an abortion in certain regions of the country, but the Supreme Court decision has changed the landscape even further. Abortion in some states has gone from hard to access to illegal, with abortion clinics closing. The pressure on clinics in states where abortion is still legal has dramatically increased, with patients in and out of state now being told that they need to wait for four weeks in some cases.

“The public in general is more pro-choice than pro-life,” Schlozman said. According to a Gallup poll from June, 55 per cent of Americans define themselves as “pro-choice”, and a record 52 per cent of Americans said abortion was morally acceptable. Average voter opinion does not support the harshest abortion laws being introduced: forcing a ten-year-old victim of incest across state lines in order to have an abortion; or making it illegal to leave the state to get an abortion; or criminalising commonly used contraception.

Traditionally, Schlozman said, “Republican candidates have been pretty disciplined… about not saying things that are wildly unpopular” with voters. But over the past 50 years – and more recently with the rise of its ultra-conservative faction, the Tea Party, then the ascent of Donald Trump – the GOP has courted and encouraged the far right.

Recently, the abortion politics of the right have taken a further turn. One example is the governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin. When he ran for governor in the swing state in 2021, his campaign pointedly avoided abortion. Yet now he is in office – without the option of running for a second term as governor and believed to be mulling a presidential run in 2024 – Youngkin has floated a ban on abortions after 15 weeks. It’s still a line politicians recognise they need to balance, which is why Republican candidates in other swing states – where anti-abortion opinion isn’t as strong – might now hesitate before coming out with a stance on abortion. According to Schlozman: “This is now an environment where particular Republicans have [the] opportunity to make gaffes – or to say things that swing voters in increasingly non-white suburbs find abhorrent.”

It’s still too difficult to predict where in the country Democrats could benefit from unforced Republican errors on abortion – meaning it is an unreliable campaign strategy for the left. However, it’s clear the political landscape on abortion has changed, and that will shape the outcome of November’s elections in perhaps surprising ways.

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