Asked Friday outside the Capitol if he’d now support that bill to codify Roe, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), whose district backed Biden by 9 points in 2020, said only: “I have a flight right now,” before diving into a waiting car. Faced with the same question inside the building, a few swing-seat Republicans rushed into the House chamber rather than answer.
One of them, moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), later released a 300-word statement saying any measure must seek to “achieve bipartisan consensus that both respects a woman’s privacy and autonomy, and also respects the sanctity of human life.”
Democrats say that silence, or occasional deflection, is a telling sign that Republicans know abortion rights remain broadly popular with much of the electorate — and that the GOP will soon face the wrath of suburban and purple-district voters. Some Republicans, too, acknowledge that abortion rights polling generally favors the left. But they say voters are harder to pin down when it comes to “late-term” abortion or “heartbeat” bans — terms the GOP leveraged to define the debate in recent years as the religious right gained influence.
“If you are talking about abortion across the board, it leans towards the pro-choice side. But the intensity is always more high on the pro-life side,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who sits in a Biden-leaning district but has won several close House races. “If you start talking about first trimester limits, then the polling shifts in our favor.”
While some conservatives have called for debate on a total abortion ban if Republicans seize power in the House, next year GOP leaders could decide instead to bring back a bill from the last time they had the majority — a 20-week abortion ban, which is broadly popular with voters.
That move could pile political pressure on members like Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), whose seat remains a potential pickup for Democrats despite the rough climate. He said only “no” to the codify-Roe question before dashing into the House chamber. Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.), who flipped an Orange County district last cycle, also said “no” before asking a reporter to call her office.
The GOP’s more hard-line stance on social issues like abortion and guns has helped its opponents gain ground in the suburbs, including in 2018, when House Democrats’ path to the majority wove through states like Pennsylvania, New York and California.
Yet despite that precedent, vulnerable Republicans aren’t always interested in trying to straddle issues that poll well back home: For instance, just 14 out of 207 Republicans voted on Friday for a bipartisan gun safety bill that had won over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who, explaining his support, mentioned how his party had “lost ground in suburban areas.”
And for the moment, Republicans insist the court’s decision will have little impact on their efforts to flip the House, which is set to change hands in November absent a seismic political shift.
“The issue is gonna be inflation, the issue is gonna be crime, the issue is gonna be the border,” said Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), who leads the House GOP campaign arm. “The issues are gonna stay the same.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former party campaign chief, said the decision could help Democrats flip one or two seats at most. But he argued it wouldn’t hurt Republicans in other key areas — such as the predominantly Hispanic districts already moving in their direction.
“It may well hurt us in old Republican suburban strongholds, but those have been slipping away from us for a variety of reasons, gun control among them,” he said.
Democrats, however, insist the demise of Roe is a more helpful shift in their fortunes. And they’re looking squarely at House Republicans sitting in those Biden districts — the members in the most uncomfortable spot on abortion rights. Their constituents lean Democratic, many in suburban areas.
California GOP Reps. David Valadao and Mike Garcia are perhaps the most vulnerable among that group this fall, despite an environment favorable to the GOP: They both hold districts that Biden carried by more than a dozen points in 2020.
Valadao’s Central Valley district is largely rural and socially conservative, however, with what he described as a sizable number of “very conservative Hispanics.” He still didn’t rule out codifying Roe, saying “I’d have to read the specifics on it.”
He then added: “Obviously, I’m very pro-life. I’m going to continue to be.” And he offered a blunt assessment of the risk he’d face supporting more abortion access: “Probably the folks who would make a decision off of that, are probably folks that wouldn’t vote for me anyways.”
Rep. David Schweikert, an ultraconservative Republican whose seat turned purple thanks to redistricting, said he was opposed to abortion because of his own personal story — he was put up for adoption in the early 1960s by his mother, then unmarried. When he eventually met his birth mother as adult, he said she shared her decision not to have an abortion, which was not legal at the time.
“She and her girlfriends were on their way to Tijuana to have an abortion,” Schweikert recalled, before she eventually changed her mind. The Arizonan said he tries “never to be a jerk” about the issue, given that it is so emotional and personal.
But Schweikert also declined to say there should be any protections for women seeking abortions, calling it a state issue: “Maybe at some point, members of Congress should shut up and leave it up to our state legislatures, where the Supreme Court said it belongs.”
The court decision Friday did not include exceptions such as rape or maternal health.
When Republicans last controlled the House, their conference had a small contingent that supported abortion rights. That ended in 2018 when moderate Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Rodney Freylinghuysen (R-N.J.) retired.
Democrats have seen a similar polarization on their side. The left has desperately tried to purge its last remaining members who oppose abortion rights, and the caucus now has a single anti-abortion member, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who’s twice barely fended off a progressive challenger in South Texas.
Several Republicans pointed to Cuellar’s successful primary runoff this summer — despite his liberal challenger attempting to use the battle as a proxy for abortion rights.
“If it couldn’t help that race,” former GOP campaigns chief Cole said, “I don’t see it flipping the electorate.”