The Memo: Guns and abortion threaten to become midterm issues

Gun Rights

Two huge cultural issues — guns and abortion — are suddenly dominating the national conversation just five months out from midterm elections that were expected to be defined by the economy.

A month ago, it seemed that a combination of rising gas prices, high inflation and general public discontent after more than two years of being battered by the COVID-19 pandemic would be the only things that really mattered. 

Those topics were also expected to provide Republican with a strong tailwind heading into November’s midterms.

But that has changed — for now. 

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The political headlines for the past month have been dominated by, firstly, a leaked draft ruling from the Supreme Court that would strike down Roe v. Wade, and more recently by two horrific mass shootings in a 10-day span.

Those developments have shaken up the national mood. But whether they will fundamentally change the electoral calculus is a tougher question.

Advocates for abortion rights claim the imminent danger to Roe could energize liberals who might not otherwise vote, as well as suburban women, who are sometimes seen as the archetypal swing voters.

President Biden has characterized the draft ruling as a statement of conservative militancy which contains within it the rationale to endanger other rights, such as the right to same-sex marriage or contraception.

There have been some signs of abortion climbing in importance in polls. 

The polling and data site FiveThirtyEight recently noted that the proportion of Biden 2020 voters who say abortion is a “very important” issue for them shot up by 15 points in the immediate wake of the draft ruling’s publication by Politico in early May.

Polling on abortion overall is complicated and nuanced, but there are consistent majorities in favor of keeping Roe in place — a dynamic that could expose the GOP to backlash if it were overturned.

Republicans, however, argue that such a ruling could energize anti-abortion activists just as much as their counterparts who favor abortion rights.

Even some Democrats are skeptical that the issue will be a political panacea for their party — in part because they suspect people who feel strongly about abortion, on either side, vote in a reliable and predictable way.

“The people who are motivated by choice as an animating issue are very committed voters to begin with, and they are voters who have the luxury to consider cultural issues,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky. “When you wake up every day worrying about how to fill up the gas tank or how to pay for basic necessities, abortion is just not something you have time to worry about.”

Comments like that reflect the grim economic realities that assert themselves in millions of Americans’ daily lives right now.

Inflation remains close to its highest point since the early 1980s. Gas prices have soared. The war in Ukraine is having knock-on effects on food prices.

Those factors have sapped Biden’s approval ratings. Last week, the president hit a new low in a NewsNation/Decision DeskHQ poll, with 43 percent of votes saying they approved of his performance and 57 percent disapproving. 

The GOP is already set to benefit from the historical pattern by which the president’s party usually loses seats in the first midterms of his White House tenure. 

Given that House Democrats are defending a tiny House majority and that the Senate is split 50-50, a GOP sweep still looks like a very real possibility.

Could the grim politics of the gun debate shake up that pattern?

The issue has new sharpness, On May 14, ten people were killed in Buffalo, N.Y., in an apparent racist attack. Last week, twenty-one people, including 19 children, were killed in Uvalde, Texas.

Republicans came under criticism, especially after the Texas killing, for their staunch opposition to virtually any gun control measures. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky,) had publicly encouraged colleagues to take part in bipartisan talks, though he has been hazy on what exactly he might be open to.

On the other hand, when the NRA held a conference in Houston just three days after the massacre, former President Trump and other leading GOP lights such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke — hardly the stance of politicians who fear the gun issue is about to turn against them.

There is also the underlying political reality — proponents of gun reform have typically struggled to sustain public outrage and engagement.

Matt Mackowiak, chair of the Travis County GOP in Texas, expressed his horror at what had occurred in his state. But he added that, in political terms, “in the moment it feels as if this will resonate beyond the moment, for a longer period of time. But I think the truth is that history shows that hasn’t been the case.”

Independent experts tend to agree.

“It’s the problem of policy fatigue, or something we sometimes call the policy attention cycle,” said Todd Belt, the director of the political management program at the George Washington University. “Over time, people’s attention sort of wanes, and it is hard to keep the public focused on something that is no longer in the news.”

For all the intensity and trauma of the last month, those issues might well have receded by the time November rolls around. 

If that happens, the story of the election will, in the end, be about the economy. And, right now, that is an ominous sign for Democrats.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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