Democrats are increasingly energized after the leaked Roe v. Wade draft opinion from the Supreme Court and recent mass shootings put a spotlight on hot-button social issues they see as liabilities for Republicans.
The party seized on calls to increase abortion access and implement new gun control measures after the draft’s release this month and horrific killings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas. Democrats say the recent developments raise the stakes for the midterms and give them a new opportunity to ramp up pressure on Republicans – a reversal from a monthslong defensive crouch on culture war issues like critical race theory, sex ed in schools and more.
“I think part of the challenge for Democrats is that they have been too quiet while Republicans just continue to bring out the culture war battle of the day, and Democrats have just shut up instead of pushing back,” said Democratic strategist Jared Leopold. “The new focus on both abortion and gun control presents an opportunity for Democrats to go on offense and define the difference between the parties on those issues that inspire voters.”
Activists earlier this month began a full-court press for abortion protections, and the combined 31 fatalities in the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings – including 19 elementary school students in Texas – thrust gun control back into the fore. And Democratic lawmakers are scrambling to catch up, though several sources lamented that such strong rallying cries took so long to manifest.
President Biden traveled to Uvalde Sunday, and Vice President Harris was in Buffalo Saturday. In the Senate, Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is giving bipartisan talks on gun control some leash but has insisted that a vote will be held on the issue.
And on abortion, lawmakers are rushing to activists’ side to push state legislatures to codify abortion protections before this summer’s ruling — though House Democrats’ message got muddled by leadership’s support in a runoff for Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), the chamber’s lone anti-abortion Democrat.
That mad dash is anticipated to play out on the campaign trail, as well as in the halls of Congress and state Houses, regardless of whether Democrats have governing majorities.
“From press conferences to debates to advertising, Democratic campaigns now have a series of proof points about how extreme these Republicans have become,” said longtime Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson.
“People understand that this is a long, hard battle and that we’re not going to turn around gun policy or abortion policy overnight. But showing concrete paths to progress is really critical,” Leopold added.
The newfound urgency marks a sudden turnabout from what Democrats say has been timidity to engage on hot-button issues, ceding ground to Republicans on the culture war battlefield.
Republicans across the country have been stepping on a slate of social third rails, and Democrats have until recently proved unable to impose a cost.
GOP candidates and lawmakers have dished out a litany of claims about critical race theory, a term that evolved into a catch-all for lamentations about public schools’ teaching of the country’s racist history.
Governors and legislators in red states have also targeted transgender girls participating in school sports, and in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed legislation sharply curtailing lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools, sparking calls by other lawmakers for similar bills.
Already, Democrats have paid electoral prices for what some in the party called a lackluster response.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) lost Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year after an intense focus by now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on public school instruction on race. And now, some warn similar defeats are in store in November unless there’s a shift in the culture wars.
“The dominant modus operandi for many people is caution and timidity when ironically, you don’t see that on the right or on the Republican side. They’re just going gangbusters attacking trans people, trying to whitewash the curriculum, with no concern about electoral consequences,” Steve Phillips, a prominent Democratic donor, said.
“But I think that what these events have highlighted is that they’re so dramatic and so over the line that hopefully this will stiffen the spines of Democrats to stand up and fight back.”
Democrats say that cautious attitude is causing angst among the base.
Terrance Woodbury, the head of HIT Strategies, said that Virginia voters in a focus group he conducted last year expressed frustration with the perception that Democrats were less vocal on their stances on hot-button social issues than their GOP counterparts.
“The real problem that we have here is that we [Democrats] do not speak up fast enough…do not come out guns blazing to defend our positions,” one voter said in the group.
A larger legislative rut for Democrats is also increasing pressure for a change in tone.
The party has been touting the bipartisan infrastructure bill – passed last year – as its main accomplishment, and some Democrats say they should put aside concerns of alienating elusive crossover voters to seize on a new strategy.
“We get so in this cycle of thinking that we have to compete for Republican moderate votes or compete for nonpartisan votes,” said Nevada Democratic Party Chair Judith Whitmer. “I think that we have to break that cycle in order to start doing things that are right for Americans and for Americans to start seeing that change, that action relate to their daily struggles. I mean, we can’t just think that an infrastructure bill is going to do at all.”
Operatives said they are hopeful that the party can take advantage of the window, but virtually every Democrat who spoke to The Hill expressed some skepticism over past messaging struggles.
“I think it’s an opportunity. It’s just a matter of if we’re able to grasp that opportunity or not,” said Arizona state Sen. Martin Quezada, who is running for state treasurer. “And I think that, unfortunately, Democrats in the past have never been able to really fully grasp these types of opportunities.”
Still, going on offense presents its own problems for Democrats.
Making abortion rights and gun control central issues in the midterms could leave the party open to questions by Republicans, including whether there should be any restrictions on abortion – which could make Democrats choose between pleasing their base and appealing to the majority of voters who say there should be at least some limitations on the procedure.
“They in many places have overstepped or overplayed their hand, especially when talking about the issue of abortion,” said one GOP official. “What are the limits, what are restrictions? They don’t want to talk about that.”
On top of that, Democrats are up against a heavily unfavorable political atmosphere driven by inflation and President Biden’s low approval ratings.
“It’s really tough for them because the things that are wrong in America right now, people see before their eyes. It’s the cost of gas, the half empty shells, inflation in a general sense, downturn in the economy. You can’t spin that stuff away. You can’t ignore it. You can’t tell people, ‘Hey, pay attention to something else,’” said GOP strategist Bob Heckman.
Yet Democrats say they have to try – if only to appease an unsettled base some fear could turn its back on the party over inaction this November.
“Not only do Democratic voters expect their leadership to do something about these issues, they are going to punish them if they don’t,” said Woodbury. “It is punitive.”