ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The day after the Supreme Court’s draft majority opinion striking down Roe v. Wade rattled the nation, Carmen Bell and Lori McFarland weren’t sure whom to blame.
The two Democratic women left a raucous Tuesday abortion-rights rally in the downtown of this rapidly diversifying Pennsylvania city rattling off their perceived culprits: GOP gerrymandering, Mitch McConnell and “dumb-dumb,” Bell’s nickname for Donald Trump.
The duo was certain of this: their party’s desperate need to drive up turnout in November to prevent the draft opinion’s vision for abortion access from becoming reality in America.
“Women of our generation know what it was like when that wasn’t available,” said an exasperated Bell. She mused that the draft opinion threatening Roe “might be the catalyst.”
But this district hosts one of the most competitive House races in the nation, for the seat now held by Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.). And in her race as well as others, it’s far from clear that voters like Bell and McFarland can help their party harness its visceral anger with the conservative Supreme Court to energize its midterms drive.
The Tuesday rally suggested that Democrats’ base is starting to recover the kind of sign-waving protest energy that it hasn’t felt since Trump left office. What the party hasn’t gained yet is confidence in how to talk about the high court’s possible dismantling of abortion rights.
“I’m trying really hard not to make this about whether this will help us win in November, because it’s so important an issue that it transcends the election,” Wild said in an interview. But, she said: “People are pissed.”
Since POLITICO’s report Monday night, Democratic leaders on and off the Hill have been privately discussing their next steps, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations. They’ve talked midterm message, their ad strategy, and which GOP incumbents to target.
Their most vulnerable Democrats haven’t been waiting for direction. Pink-hued protests outside courthouses, clinics and statehouses have popped up on short notice, headlined by incumbents like Reps. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Susie Lee (D-Nev.). Many have already begun calling for more campaign volunteers this fall, while fundraising pleas have come from both swing and safe blue districts, spanning Georgia to New York to California.
“Republicans are going to be in a very tough place right now. They have to defend something that Republicans said would never happen,” said now-Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who ran the House Democratic campaign arm during its 2018 takeover. “I think this is a very bad issue for them.”
Luján and others helped translate suburban, anti-Trump anger that year into a Democratic wave, including in Pennsylvania where the party — with help from Wild — flipped multiple seats.
Alluding to that robust 2018 turnout, Luján suggested that the current building fury from women voters over Roe could play a similar role: “Republicans, they didn’t learn from past elections when women showed up.”
Turnout was already a worry for Democrats this cycle. They noted warning signs in statewide contests like Virginia’s last year, where Republicans showed up in dramatically higher numbers than expected. That’s particularly true in Pennsylvania this fall, with critical House seats, an open Senate seat and a governor’s race all expected to be competitive.
That effort to drive out voters here has now been put into overdrive. The winner of the governor’s race will determine whether Pennsylvanians will eventually have their own abortion ban. The state’s congressional seats could be crucial to whether national Democrats can act on abortion access after the high court’s final ruling, expected next month.
And local Democrats here aren’t going to let their voters forget it. Speaking to a worked-up crowd in Allentown on Tuesday evening, the top Democrat in Pennsylvania’s statehouse delivered a stern reminder to supporters.
“Someone asked me this morning, what’s your plan? I said my plan is Tuesday, November the eighth!” state Rep. Joanna McClinton roared as she addressed the rally. Behind her, the group — which included one gray-haired woman waving a metal coat hanger — broke into a cheer of “Vote blue in 2022.”
Another middle-aged woman held a sign that read “Do rapists have parental rights?”, while an older man wore a shirt featuring characters from the dystopian TV show “Handmaid’s Tale.”
That sort of surge in enthusiasm, Democrats acknowledge behind closed doors, was sorely needed. Even with full control of Washington, the party remains paralyzed by its slim congressional margins and ongoing policy disputes between its left and centrist flanks.
In recent weeks, Democrats have also gotten swamped by a painful debate over border politics rather than talking about tackling inflation or jump-starting the economy, as many party members would prefer.
Abortion, however, isn’t like Biden’s campaign promises to deliver on child care, education or lowering health care costs. When it comes to Roe, Democrats say they have a chance to make the midterms about what they can protect their voters against — not just the legislative burden of creating new programs.
Deb Martin, another middle-aged Allentown Democrat who volunteers on get-out-the-vote efforts, hopes fear is a more powerful motivator.
“Maybe this is the thing we need. Because I feel like, leading up to the midterm election, the mood has been kind of subdued,” Martin said, noting that grassroots work has been “frustrating” lately. “It’s just a heavy lift.”
Democrats point to years of polling that shows most Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That includes a slight majority of independent voters — a faction that will be critical in Wild’s reelection bid in her newly redrawn eastern Pennsylvania district.
Her seat became slightly redder overall after redistricting. Voters in her new district would have split nearly evenly between Trump and Biden in the 2020 election. But it also now includes many more people who don’t register with either party.
“In a state like Pennsylvania, particularly this district, the independent vote matters tremendously,” Wild said. “I think this very well might be a deciding factor for the independent vote.”
Wild doesn’t yet know who she’ll be running against in November, with the state’s primary still two weeks away, but it is widely expected to be GOP business owner Lisa Scheller. The Republican came within 4 percentage points of beating Wild in 2020.
Scheller, whose team did not respond to requests for comment, said in a previous GOP debate that she would not support abortions in cases of rape or incest. Her opponent, veteran and business owner Kevin Dellicker, was in favor of banning all abortions.
“I support pro-life policies and I would never vote for a bill that would codify Roe vs. Wade,” Scheller said at the debate, according to the Lehigh Valley Live.
Scheller’s fervor underscores one of Democrats’ lingering fears after the Roe opinion breach — that the GOP could benefit from an even bigger enthusiasm surge in November, since abortion opposition has driven that party’s religious conservative base to the polls for decades.
“Republicans need a date to vote” and little else, quipped McFarland, the Allentown Democrat who recently retired after 30 years in the public school system. “We need a person, we need a reason.”
But if Democrats can muster turnout this fall that’s anything like the Women’s March she attended after Trump’s victory, she vowed: “Women will save democracy.”
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.