Among the throng of abortion-rights demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court this week were six Democratic presidential candidates.
They were there to protest new abortion restrictions passed by Republican-dominated legislatures in such states as Georgia, Missouri and especially Alabama, which approved an outright ban on abortions.
“We are not going to allow them to move our country backward,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota vowed as she spoke to the crowd.
Another White House hopeful, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, called the measures “the beginning of President Trump’s war on women.”
And Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey urged those protesting to “wake up more men to join this fight.”
The demonstration on the steps of the nation’s highest court was the latest sign that the divisive issue of abortion has rocketed to the center of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination — and with a lawsuit filed Friday against the Alabama law, legal proceedings could easily keep the debate hot going into the 2020 general election.
But the question going forward — will the debate mobilize Democrats to the same degree Republicans have used the issue to energize social conservatives in the decades since the landmark Roe v. Wade high court ruling codified abortion protections? Part of President Trump's 2016 coalition included social conservatives who, despite reservations about the candidate, wanted to ensure federal court vacancies were filled by like-minded jurists.
And with numerous state abortion laws tempting legal challenges, an epic battle over abortion restrictions could be shaping up in the future before a Supreme Court that Trump has made more conservative since taking office.
On Friday, Missouri's governor signed a bill banning abortions after eight weeks. Last week, Alabama passed an outright abortion ban, including for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, unless the woman’s life is in danger. Days earlier, Georgia banned abortions absent a medical emergency after six weeks of pregnancy. The measure also made abortions illegal after a fetus’s heartbeat can be detected, which can happen before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.
“More than anything, I think what you're seeing from both the presidential candidates and the broader Democratic elected and progressive activist universe is a visceral response to blatant attacks on women's reproductive rights,” said veteran Democratic consultant and communications strategist Lynda Tran. “For so many women — and men — across the country, this isn't politics as much as it is personal.”
In his 2012 re-election, then-President Barack Obama hammered GOP nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans for waging what he and other Democrats described as a “war on women.”
Four years later, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton reiterated the theme as she spotlighted her support for Roe v. Wade — and Trump vowed to put “pro-life justices on the court.”
While the 2020 Democrats largely support abortion rights and criticize the recent state laws, they do differ when it comes to how much emphasis they put on the issue.
Gillibrand traveled to Atlanta last week to protest Georgia’s new measure and once again vowed to nominate judges who would uphold Roe v. Wade.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts produced a new policy proposal to protect access to reproductive health care.
And Sen. Kamala Harris of California has spotlighted the fight for abortion rights on the campaign trail the past couple of weeks.
But it’s not just the female candidates.
Booker earlier this week rolled out a plan that would include creating a White House Office of Reproductive Freedom.
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Eric Swalwell of California, and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts also attended the rally outside the Supreme Court.
Social conservatives are banking on the legal challenges against the new state laws eventually ending up before the high court, which they hope will overturn Roe v. Wade.
But public perceptions about the 1973 ruling appear to be shifting.
A Fox News Poll in January indicated that six in 10 registered voters wanted the precedent to remain in place, while just 21 percent wanted Roe v. Wade overturned.
And 28 percent of those questioned in a Quinnipiac University survey released this week said abortion should be legal in all cases, an all-time high in that organization’s polling. Eight percent said abortion should be illegal in all cases, the lowest level since Quinnipiac first asked the question 15 years ago.
Female voters helped drive the Democrats' success at the ballot box in 2018, as they recaptured the majority in the House. Democratic strategists say the issues will help rally the troops again in 2020.
Tran noted that “Republicans seem to be banking on these laws and this fight helping to turn out their base in 2020.”
But she spotlighted “what it will also likely do is enable Democrats who won huge victories in 2018 thanks to women voters in key districts nationally to drive up what is already heightened voter enthusiasm among progressives even higher.”
The Republican National Committee says the issue of abortion is distracting Democrats from getting the work of the people accomplished.
“While Democrats continue to espouse extreme positions on abortion," argued RNC press secretary Blair Ellis, "they neglect the real and substantive work they promised the American people."
A veteran GOP consultant thinks the significance of abortion's impact on the 2020 election is overstated.
"The issue of abortion rights is a hot button issue for a small portion of either party," said Lauren Caren, a veteran of numerous Republican presidential and Senate campaigns.
"What the middle of the road person expects is common sense. So I don't see this issue as being the pinnacle of all issues for this election cycle," added Carney, who served as a top adviser to Carly Fiorina's 2016 White House bid.