Recent House votes to enshrine federal protections for same-sex marriage and contraception access signal a Democratic strategy to box in Republicans on social issues, which they hope could help knock GOP candidates down a few pegs in a handful of key races.
Republicans are largely brushing off the attacks, turning their attention to economic issues that dominate voter concerns in polls. They argue that Democrats are playing political games in bringing up the bills, that same-sex marriage and contraception access are not at risk, and that the contraception bill posed issues with its wide definition and religious liberty ramifications.
But Democrats say they will keep the focus on GOP votes against the bills through the election.
“We will continue to call out Republicans’ votes against protecting everything from marriage equality, to abortion, to contraception — all while they plot a nationwide abortion ban. By November, voters will know that Democrats are fighting to protect the freedoms that Republicans are hellbent on ripping away,” Democratic National Campaign Committee spokesperson Helen Kalla said in a statement.
Last week, 157 House Republicans voted against a bill to codify federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriage, as well as repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage for federal purposes as being between one man and one woman. On a bill to codify federal protections for contraception access, 195 House Republicans voted “no.”
The bills were a direct response to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that overturned the abortion rights case Roe v. Wade, which suggested the court “reconsider” its substantive due process precedents in several cases, including those that legalized same-sex marriage and the right for married couples to buy and use contraception.
The issues are politically popular. A July 22-24 Politico-Morning Consult national poll of registered voters found 75 percent in support of a federal law protecting the right to birth control access, with support at 63 percent among Republican voters and 75 percent among independents. Support for a federal law protecting the right to same-sex marriage was 58 percent, reaching 36 percent among Republican voters and 62 percent among independents.
“I would expect to see a lot of paid media on the subject,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.
Several candidates running against House Republican incumbents in swing districts, supported by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, fired off statements dinging those who voted against one or both of the bills. In doing so, they were following the lead of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Biden, who sent out similar messages bashing Republicans in general.
Greg Landsman, the Democratic nominee challenging Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), sent tweets accusing Chabot of having “outdated” and “narrow-minded” views for voting against both bills. And Christy Smith, the Democratic challenger to Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), accused him of having “extreme beliefs” for voting against the contraception bill.
Republicans argue that they support access to contraception, but said the bill had poison pills.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) argued on the House floor that the bill would override religious liberty protections that allow health care providers to refuse to provide contraception and sterilization, and that a broad definition of contraception in the bill could include a right to products not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the most influential anti-abortion groups, warned members of the House in a letter that it would include votes on the contraception bill in its scorecard, urging representatives to vote “no.”
An alternative bill led by Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) and supported by House leadership aims to make FDA-approved birth control medication available over the counter for those age 18 and up.
“House Democrats are doing everything they can to ignore the issues voters care about most: stopping inflation, securing the border and protecting our communities. That is why their majority is toast,” National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Michael McAdams said in a statement.
A number of Republicans in swing districts being targeted by national Democrats were also part of the group of 47 who voted in favor of the bill to protect same-sex marriage — including Hinson, Valadao and Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) — blocking their opponents from weaponizing that vote in ads or campaign messaging.
Republican strategist John Thomas said in an email that the votes are “a desperate attempt to score points and shift the conversation and give ammunition to their members to hold together a Dem coalition as we enter November.”
“These issues may matter in tight races, but by and large if the GOP has a giant red wave behind them, these sub-issues will all be noise come election day,” Thomas said.
But with most analysts predicting the GOP winning the House in November, effective messaging on social issues in those tight races may help Democrats to blunt the blow.
“Inflation, gas prices — those are very important to voters. And I think the Democrats made a huge mistake for many months not trying to turn that around on Republicans,” said Reinish, the Democratic strategist. “Democrats mistakenly took their cues from the White House who sort of buried their heads in the sand on the subject for too long.”
“But voters walk and chew gum, and I think it’s really naive for Republicans to whistle past the graveyard on this subject and say, ‘No, only one thing matters to voters.’ No, many things matter to voters,” Reinish added.