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That hardly came as a shock, given that prohibiting abortion has been a top GOP priority for decades and that a number of prominent Republicans have already said they think a nationwide prohibition should be on the table.
But on Tuesday, McConnell “clarified” his comments. He told reporters that he was merely speaking about what was technically possible ― and, by implication, not about what he actually envisioned Republicans attempting if they gained control of Congress and the presidency.
That, too, was unsurprising. Banning abortion would be extremely unpopular ― polling consistently shows that most Americans think it should be legal in at least some circumstances ― and a national ban would almost certainly provoke a backlash.
That unpopularity is one reason plenty of pundits and outside observers keep saying a nationwide ban is unlikely: In American politics, parties rarely try to pursue changes that clear, large majorities oppose. And when they do, they usually fail and go on to suffer consequences.
Just ask the Republicans who attempted to privatize Social Security during the George W. Bush administration, or the ones who tried repealing the Affordable Care Act while Donald Trump was in the White House.
Neither effort succeeded. Both times, the harsh public reaction carried all the way to the following midterms, when those same Republicans took a beating and lost control of Congress.
Still, a lot has changed since then, and it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility of a national abortion ban. The same goes for other extreme ideas, like prohibitions on certain kinds of contraception or a rollback of same-sex marriage rights, that Republicans around the country are now endorsing openly.
I can think of several reasons to take these threats seriously. Here are three:
Republicans have extra layers of political insulation
The key impediment to attempting unpopular political crusades is the fear of political backlash. But today’s Republicans have multiple layers of protection from such a backlash ― more than at any time in recent history.
The apportionment of seats in the Senate (and, correspondingly, votes in the Electoral College) gives low-population states disproportionate power. And the current geographic distribution of voters means those low-population states tilt Republican.
Last year, progressive strategist David Shor calculated that a Democratic presidential candidate would need to win 52% of the popular vote just to have a 50-50 shot at winning the Electoral College.
That built-in partisan advantage in the Senate and Electoral College led directly to the appointment of several conservative justices who would provide the majority opinion to strike down Roe. (Remember, among the current conservative justices, only Justice Clarence Thomas predates George W. Bush.)
That same advantage would insulate Republicans from a political backlash to enacting a national ban, maybe enough to make it seem worthwhile.
GOP leaders can’t control their most extreme elements
This is perhaps the most profound change of recent years, and one that has become especially clear as we’ve learned more about the Jan. 6 insurrection and how Republicans reacted to it.
Immediately after the storming of the U.S. Capitol and the violent effort to overturn the 2020 election results, Republican leaders said they held Trump responsible, and that they were prepared to make him face the consequences.
They said so publicly and they said so privately. McConnell told fellow Republicans that Trump deserved impeachment, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told colleagues he might ask Trump to resign, as Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin of The New York Times reported recently.
But McConnell ultimately voted against removing Trump from office, and it appears McCarthy never asked Trump to resign. Instead, they and other GOP leaders have spent the last year and a half backpedaling, finding new ways to downplay or excuse Trump’s role in the deadly riot ― while dodging confrontations with conspiracy-peddling Trump partisans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
Letting Trump and his most devoted supporters off the hook isn’t the same as empowering extremists to set the legislative agenda, of course. But there’s a lot of overlap between the Republican lawmakers determined to defend Trump and the Republican lawmakers determined to ban abortion.
And if GOP leaders are afraid to defy these extremist members on matters related to the former president, it’s not clear why they’d be more willing to defy them on matters related to reproductive rights.
Abortion bans have a powerful constituency
While a solid majority of Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases, the minority who disagree are disproportionately white evangelicals ― who, in turn, may be the single most influential constituency within the Republican Party.
A few numbers tell the story.
White evangelicals represent about a quarter of the total electorate. And in 2020, something like 70% or 80% of them voted for Trump, depending on whose survey data you trust. They tend to vote in high numbers, even in off-year elections, and hold extra sway in states like Iowa and South Carolina that play an early, decisive role in picking GOP presidential candidates.
As for their opinion on abortion itself, three-quarters of white evangelicals say it should mostly or always be illegal, according to recent polling from Pew. And a combined 86% say the statement that “a fetus is a person with rights” captures their perspective extremely well, very well or somewhat well.
Republican leaders have spent decades appealing to this constituency by promising to stop abortions. If the expected Supreme Court ruling creates an opportunity to do that nationally, GOP leaders will have a hard time explaining why they’re not taking advantage of it.