Essential Politics: Could Biden’s pitch to save abortion rights sway midterm voters?

Four months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, the future of abortion rights is still uncertain.

States around the country have moved to expand and contract access to the medical procedure, leaving behind a web of mismatched laws for women to navigate.

On Tuesday, as abortion foes continued to push for a national ban, President Biden vowed to use federal law to protect abortion rights. The president asked voters to help his party hold onto the House of Representatives and send two additional Democratic senators to Washington so they can vote to change the chamber’s rules, circumvent a GOP filibuster and ensure federal protection for abortion access.

In the wake of the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion leak in May and the court decision the following month, a wave of women registered to vote, creating the distinct impression that this issue would dominate the midterm elections. In August, voters in Kansas, a solidly red state, voted in favor of protecting abortion access, lending more support to the idea that the outcome of the midterms would turn on abortion rights.

Months later though, polling is painting a different reality. It seems that as inflation worsens, voters are more concerned about gas prices and a possible recession. Republicans’ chances of seizing control of Congress appear stronger than they’ve been in weeks. But could Biden’s Tuesday pitch overcome these perceptions? Could promising action around voting rights actually help Democrats in the November midterm elections?

Hello friends, I’m Erin B. Logan. I cover national politics for the Los Angeles Times. This week we are going to discuss polling, abortion rights and the midterm elections.

Biden’s promise

Biden on Tuesday promised to make protecting abortion rights a top priority if Democrats retain control of the House and expand their majority in the Senate from 50 to 52. As Times writer Eli Stokols reported, Democrats now control the evenly divided Senate because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break a tie vote. But to change the rules and circumvent the Republican filibuster, Democrats need two more Senators in their ranks.

Stokols reported that last month, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that his party would advance federal legislation banning abortion after 15 weeks of gestation if it gains control of Congress in the midterms.

“Republicans are doubling down on their extreme positions,” Biden told the crowd at the Howard Theatre in Washington on Tuesday. “If Republicans get their way with a national ban, it won’t matter where you live in America,” he added.

Will it work?

Biden’s pitch won’t make a difference in the voting booth, Douglas Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, told The Times. Heye said that although Democrats’ outlook got better earlier this year when voting registration surged amid the Dobbs decision, abortion rights have fallen in importance as Americans grow more worried about the nation’s economic outlook.

In a September poll from NBC News and Hart Research Associates, 59% of voters polled said a candidate’s position on dealing with the cost of living is more important than abortion when deciding who to vote for in Congress, while just 37% of respondents said the opposite, ranking access to the procedure as more important.

“[Abortion rights] have fallen in importance with independent women, and when we continue to have bad economic news like we did last week, it looks like that will continue to be the case,” he said.

Voters are rarely guided by a single issue, Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, noted. But Biden’s speech will keep abortion rights top of mind for voters as they head to the ballot box in the coming weeks.

“What you like to hear from the White House close to election is echoing the thematics that Democrats across the country have been trying to push,” he said. Belcher noted that Republicans are honing in on high inflation as a top issue. “But in the end, Democrats have to make a case for why middle-class or working-class Americans … are gonna be better off under their policies than the policies of Republicans.”

The latest from the campaign trail

—Two days after racist comments on a secret audio recording rocked Los Angeles’ political leadership, the two candidates for mayor debated last week in a sober discussion that largely focused on which of them is best positioned to bridge racial divides and bring the city together, Times writers Dakota Smith, James Rainey and Benjamin Oreskes reported. The matchup between U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and developer Rick Caruso at Brokaw News Center in Universal City came hours after a large crowd packed L.A. City Hall chanting “fuera” — “out” in Spanish — and called for the resignations of top city officials, one of several developments over the last week that have left the future of L.A.’s leadership in doubt.

—Just as the reversal of Roe vs. Wade has scrambled Democrats’ overall midterm playbook, it has also prompted the party to rethink its long-standing approach with Latino voters, Times writers Melanie Mason and Noah Bierman reported. The party is putting the abortion issue at the center, discarding decades of conventional wisdom that it would be a political loser with a group of voters that is overwhelmingly Catholic and seen as socially conservative. The shift comes amid Democratic anxiety and Republican optimism over a small but significant rightward shift among Latino voters as a whole. November will test the two parties’ competing theories — whether abortion will give Democrats a reprieve or the GOP will build on its gains by emphasizing inflation and crime.

—Vice President Kamala Harris smiled, laughed and showered her fellow Democrats with compliments as she campaigned in Detroit on Saturday with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who remains a favorite for reelection even as her race with Republican Tudor Dixon appears to tighten, Times writers Noah Bierman and Anumita Kaur reported. But politicos watching Harris’ and Whitmer’s appearance together were interested in more than the governor’s chances in next month’s midterm elections. The vice president and the governor, now allies, are seen as possible future rivals and could well face each other in a presidential primary in 2024 or 2028, depending on whether President Biden seeks another term, as he has promised.

The view from Washington

—A special master review of documents seized from former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida should not have been approved, the Department of Justice argued in its first filing in the appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Times writer Sarah D. Wire reported. The department is asking the court to overturn U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon’s decision to appoint a special master to review more than 13,000 records seized during the Aug. 8 search of the Florida property by the FBI and to block the department from using any of the documents for its investigation until the months-long process ends. The appellate court has agreed to expedite consideration of the case. Trump’s lawyers must file their response by Nov. 10.

—After closing out what could be the final installment in a series of high-profile hearings, the House’s Jan. 6 select committee is left with decisions to make in its remaining weeks that could have profound effects for years to come, Wire reported. The committee will need to square whether it will play a role in the Justice Department’s investigation and determine how the raw information it has collected will be preserved and disseminated. But ultimately the panel’s largest decisions will be about what recommendations to make and what information its final report should contain. Republican leaders had fought the creation of an independent commission to review the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and what led to it. The House panel is the only government entity tasked with the inquiry and is compiling what is expected to be the definitive historical record of what led to the insurrection.

The view from Los Angeles City Hall

—Even though Los Angeles labor officials have called the leak of racist recordings involving three L.A. City councilmembers a serious crime, the Los Angeles Police Department is not investigating who recorded and posted the clips because no one has filed a police report, Times writers Richard Winton and Connor Sheets reported. The recordings took place at the offices of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which has called the leak “illegal” and vowed to have those involved prosecuted. The union attempted to block the Los Angeles Times from publishing details of the recordings, saying they were obtained illegally. The Times refused. More than a week after the leak, it is still unclear how the recordings were made. LAPD Capt. Kelly Muniz said the department has not received a call from the labor group or any other agency asking that detectives probe the matter, so the LAPD is not investigating.

—For nearly a week, activists and elected officials have demanded the ouster of three Los Angeles City Council members, calling it the only acceptable response to secretly recorded audio of them engaged in a conversation with racist and derogatory language, Times writers David Zahniser and Benjamin Oreskes reported. But in and outside City Hall, some have begun discussing another, potentially more dramatic step to address the public’s outrage in the wake of the scandal: scrapping the maps of the council’s 15 districts and drawing new ones. City Atty. Mike Feuer wants the council to ask voters next spring to authorize an independent commission to create new district maps in time for the March 2024 election. Under his proposal, the council would have absolutely no say in the final product, he said.

—The Los Angeles City Council selected Councilmember Paul Krekorian as its next leader Tuesday afternoon, with the 10 members present voting unanimously for him to take over the council presidency, Times writers Julia Wick and David Zahniser reported. The council also voted unanimously to move forward on two reform measures, one that would increase the number of seats on the City Council and another that would put an independent commission in charge of the city’s redistricting process. Tuesday’s vote is an initial step that instructs various city departments to report back. Implementing either reform would be a lengthy process requiring a public vote on the city ballot.

—The racist tape, which has captivated much of the country, showcases two political phenomena — strife among Democrats jockeying for power and anti-Black racism among politicians of color — that are rarely aired so openly, Times writer Erin B. Logan reported. Two of the lawmakers involved in the tape have refused to leave office in the face of righteous anger, creating a waiting game of sorts. But focusing on whether a few politicians will resign, rather than on a culture that nurtures anti-Black racism within Latino communities, can obscure the prevalence of racist beliefs.

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