(CNN)Momentous and tragic events are driving public attention back toward abortion rights and gun control, two issues that keyed the Democratic advance in well-educated suburbs over the past generation. And that could create the Democrats’ best chance of defending those gains in the stormy environment of the 2022 midterm elections.
Debates over abortion and guns have played a central role in the ongoing geographic resorting of the two predominant political parties. Since the early years of this century, Republicans have consolidated a commanding grip on rural and small-town communities filled with culturally conservative blue-collar voters who generally oppose both legal abortion and most restrictions on gun ownership.
In mirror image, Democrats have gained in white-collar communities around major cities filled with well-educated voters who generally support both abortion rights and gun control — a process that peaked with the sweeping suburban gains that powered the party’s recapture of the US House in 2018.
Amid discontent over persistent Covid disruptions, dissatisfaction over President Joe Biden’s performance, supply chain problems like the shortage of infant formula, and above all, the highest inflation in 40 years, Republicans have expressed mounting confidence about recapturing many of those suburban House seats, and flipping suburban voters in Senate and governor races, in November. But the tragic mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, have riveted attention on gun violence and access to firearms, even as the leaking of a draft opinion from five GOP-appointed justices has raised the prospect that the Supreme Court, just weeks from now, might repeal the constitutional right to abortion established under the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
No serious analyst in either party expects more focus on these issues to erase all the advantages Republicans are stockpiling in the midterm elections. But the more those issues influence voters’ decisions, operatives on both sides of the debate agree, the better Democrats’ chances to blunt the GOP advance, at least in white-collar and suburban communities.
“Refocusing on gun safety and abortion rights will move many of these 2018 suburban districts away from the Republicans and make their playing field smaller,” predicts Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun safety advocacy group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords.
Many Republicans agree they could face more resistance in suburbia if abortion rights and gun control remain prominent concerns through Election Day. John Thomas, a Texas-based GOP consultant who has worked extensively in California suburbs such as Orange County, says that until these issues resurfaced so prominently, the Republican path in these areas appeared clear, with voters less focused on their distaste for former President Donald Trump and more on their dissatisfaction with Biden.
“Two months ago, we would have absolutely waltzed through these places with college-educated suburban White women, because they had no real reason to either break against us or turn out,” he says. “There’s no orange man [Trump] — there was no wedge issue for them.”
Like most Republicans, and even some Democrats, Thomas believes that discontent over inflation and disenchantment over Biden will remain the driving factor in white-collar districts, just as in less affluent places. But, he says, the renewed attention to abortion and gun control has added an element of uncertainty and created an opening for Democrats to change the electoral dynamic in some areas.
“It comes down to what is the national conversation and top issue as we go to November,” Thomas says. “Is it economic driven and a referendum on Biden’s failure? Quite frankly, if those other issues [gun control and abortion] are in the world of parity, Republicans have problems in those seats.”
Democrats’ suburban advance
Improved performance in well-educated suburbs (along with society’s increasing racial diversity and the growth of millennials and Generation Z in the electorate) has been among the most significant drivers of Democratic electoral gains over the past quarter century. The Democrats’ suburban advance has reflected the increasing prominence of cultural affinities in shaping electoral choices, with the party gaining among voters who often took center-right positions on economic issues like taxes but leaned left on cultural questions such as abortion, gun control and LGBTQ rights. (That process, in reverse, fueled the GOP small-town and rural gains among culturally conservative voters who once backed Democrats supporting expansive government programs such as Social Security.)
Through the 1990s, House Republicans representing suburban constituencies often voted for gun control and/or expressed support for legalized abortion: When the House in 1993 passed the “Brady Bill” establishing the national background check system for purchases from gun stores, 54 House Republicans, mostly representing suburban areas, voted for it. But since then, almost all elected Republicans, whatever their constituencies, have moved toward lockstep opposition to legal abortion and gun control.
Against the backdrop of widespread white-collar discontent with Trump, Democrats exploited that mismatch more effectively than ever in 2018, when they ousted Republicans from suburban districts around major cities from coast to coast. In that election, Republicans tumbled from holding about 43% of all the House districts with more college graduates than average to only about 25% of them, according to a CNN analysis at the time. The Giffords group calculated that 40 House Republicans with high ratings from the National Rifle Association lost or retired that year. Two years later, those same suburban places provided decisive votes for Biden.
But these suburban areas haven’t been immune to the general discontent over the country’s direction and Biden’s performance that has generated such a powerful tailwind for Republicans in the 2022 elections. Biden’s approval with college-educated White voters remains much higher than his standing among Whites without such degrees. But compared with his 2020 vote he has fallen substantially with well-educated voters as well, especially men.
Amid that discontent, Republicans have been extremely optimistic about regaining ground with suburban voters in the critical statewide races for governor (including in Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Texas, Arizona and Nevada) and the Senate (including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.)
“These areas had been moving more Democrat,” says former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis, who represented a suburban Northern Virginia seat in the US House. “What you see now are the Democrats in charge, and to the average person the economy is not being managed [well], and so I think it’s going to snap back to some extent.”
Because suburban seats fueled the Democratic takeover of the House, they are especially central to Republican hopes of winning back the chamber. In 2020, Republicans recaptured many of the Democratic 2018 pickups in districts where Trump remained popular. That’s left Democrats mostly defending seats this fall in metropolitan areas that didn’t like Trump but have now soured on Biden — a list that includes the districts held by Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, Angie Craig in Minnesota, Cindy Axne in Iowa, Greg Stanton in Arizona, Susie Lee in Nevada, Kim Schrier in Washington state, and Mike Levin and Katie Porter in California. The suburbs are “where we are either going to stem losses or hold our ground,” says Democratic pollster Molly Murphy.
Attitudes about guns and abortion may represent Democrats’ best chance in these places. Public polling shows that large majorities of college-educated voters side with Democratic views on both issues. Nearly 70% of college-educated adults, for instance, said they opposed overturning Roe v. Wade in a nationwide CNN poll conducted by SSRS in May. Among college-educated adults, nearly 9 in 10 supported universal background checks for gun purchases, and more than 7 in 10 backed a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in a nationwide Pew Research Center poll last year, according to detailed results provided to CNN by Pew. Nearly 9 in 10 college graduates also opposed a policy proliferating in Republican-controlled states: allowing people to carry concealed weapons without permits in public places.
State polls underline that message. In California, a state with multiple competitive US House races, 69% of college-educated adults said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported maintaining Roe, compared with just 12% who said they wanted a candidate committed to overturning it, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey. Even in Texas, University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls have found that nearly 6 in 10 residents with college degrees oppose both the complete ban on abortion that will snap into effect there this summer if the Supreme Court overturns Roe and the 2021 state law allowing permitless carry of firearms.
Could the landscape shift?
Given such lopsided attitudes among well-educated voters, activists and Democratic operatives believe the sharp contrasts between the parties on guns and abortion could shift the electoral dynamic in suburban battlefields up and down the ballot.
“This renewed focus on gun safety undermines the Republican case in those more educated, affluent, diverse suburban districts that have been at the core of the Democrats’ new majority,” says Ambler of Giffords. “As the salience of gun violence grows with these mass shootings, and the salience of abortion rights grow with the upcoming Supreme Court decision, you are going to see these swing suburban voters enrage themselves all over again over the common cause the Republican Party has made with the extreme right wing of the conservative movement.”
Abortion rights advocates believe a high court decision in the next few weeks overturning Roe would transform the political debate by eliminating what Christina Reynolds, vice president for communications at Emily’s List, a group supporting Democratic female candidates who favor abortion rights, calls the “believability gap”: the skepticism among voters who back abortion rights that the right to abortion, in place for so long, really could be rescinded. “Fundamentally people believe you should have the freedom to make your own decisions,” she says.
Shannon Olivieri Hovis, the director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, says the group’s polling and focus groups have found widespread awareness — and astonishment — that Roe could be reversed. “Certainly the leak of the draft majority opinion was an eye-opening reality for a lot of folks,” she says. Most people alive, she adds, “no matter how old they are,” have lived in a nation where abortion has been legal “for the vast majority of their lives.” Now that could change, within weeks given how many states are poised to ban abortion immediately if the Supreme Court allows it. “People do not like having their rights taken away. It’s completely an astonishing idea [to them] that something that is so established could be reversed,” she says.
Democrats and advocacy groups don’t expect that more attention to abortion rights and gun control will cause Republican women who agree with them on the issues to abandon GOP candidates. But they do think the renewed prominence of these controversies could tip some independent women dissatisfied with Biden and inflation. Even more important, they believe these questions could increase turnout among key groups in their coalition that might otherwise be less motivated to vote in a midterm, particularly college-educated, single and younger women.
Chris Taylor, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says the contrasts between the parties on guns and abortion could energize Democratic-leaning voters who turned out in huge numbers to oppose Trump but may feel less urgency now. Gun control will “be front and center, and the same thing on abortion: It all falls under the same banner of you may not agree with us on everything but these guys are way too extreme for you to vote for them,” he says.
The enthusiasm gap
Thomas, the Republican consultant, agrees that in many white-collar areas it will be difficult for Republican candidates to win a debate centered on views about those two polarizing issues. And he agrees the increased attention to both concerns will likely rejuvenate Democrats’ small-donor fundraising, strengthening their capacity to defend more seats. But he remains optimistic that even in suburban districts, the campaign debate won’t lastingly shift toward guns and abortion. “I do feel pretty confident that the economy, housing, inflation, gas, food shortages are going to be there, and … if that kind of stuff is driving the media conversation, then Democrats are going to get wiped,” he predicts.
Republican pollster Gene Ulm is even more emphatic. “These issues, all of them, are just being crushed by economic concerns, and that will continue,” he says. While guns and abortion could generate “an incremental turnout effect that could affect suburbia in certain states,” he adds, “we’re talking about an incremental change when there’s huge sea changes going on,” with voters across the income and educational spectrum moving toward the GOP amid discontent over inflation and Biden.
It’s not only the overriding public concern about inflation and the economy; the extent of electoral re-sorting that has already occurred also could dilute the impact of these issues this fall, Davis argues. Most voters, he notes, who disagree with either party on abortion and guns have already migrated toward the other — meaning a renewed focus on those issues isn’t likely to shift many more voters now. “I think it helps the Democratic base, which was starting to crater, but I don’t think it’s the game changer it might have been 20 years ago,” Davis says.
Although the horrific Buffalo and Uvalde massacres, and the pending Supreme Court decision on Roe, could shift the public’s focus, polls make clear that Democrats still have work to do in persuading voters to focus more on these issues this year. In the recent Public Policy Institute of California poll, for example, just 2% of California voters picked abortion as their top concern, compared with 24% who identified jobs, the economy or inflation. In the May CNN survey, half of the minority of adults who wanted to overturn Roe said they were extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in November, compared with less than two-fifths of those who opposed reversing the decision.
Murphy says that ultimately both parties must compete on both fronts: Democrats need to respond to voter concerns about the economy and Republicans have to defend their differences with suburban voters on abortion and guns. “I think it’s not so binary, because I do think these races are going to include a mix,” Murphy says. “Republicans will have to debate these issues and Democrats will have to show their economic strength.”
Most analysts in both parties agree that so many voters are expressing unhappiness over the country’s direction that Republicans are likely to post significant gains in November no matter how much attention shifts from the economy to abortion rights and gun control. The real issue isn’t whether Democrats can reverse that wave, it’s whether they can blunt it by holding on to some of the white-collar suburban voters who looked ready to move back toward the GOP after stampeding away from the party under Trump.
In that way, abortion and gun control could affect this election the same way the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh did in 2018, predicts David Wasserman, who studies House races for The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter. The incendiary Kavanaugh struggle only a few weeks before Election Day, he notes, did not stop big Democratic gains in 2018 but it did narrow the enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters and prevent an even worse shellacking for the GOP.
“There was a big enthusiasm gap until Kavanaugh, and Kavanaugh helped Republicans win net two Senate seats and probably cut their House losses from being worse,” Wasserman says. While Democrats have little chance of holding the House, he adds, “I can see a scenario where, close to the election, Democrats’ voters tune in because everything is existential in this era and [the Democratic losses] are not as bad as forecast.”
In this blustery electoral environment, that may be about the most Democrats can hope for.