Now that we know President Donald Trump has settled on Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his next choice for the Supreme Court, Senate Republicans are poised to deliver on a promise they have been making to conservatives for decades.
In Kavanaugh, the GOP has both its biggest opportunity to move the court to the right for a generation as well as its biggest danger - months of unscripted moments when abortion, reproductive rights and women will be at the center of a heated debate that Republicans have proved uniquely terrible at navigating over the years.
With a slim GOP majority in the Senate and nearly a dozen Democratic senators up for re-election in red states this fall, the chances are good that Kavanaugh will make it through his confirmation process fairly easily, even if it isn’t pretty.
But the chances are equally high that in the process of winning the confirmation battle, Republicans could also lose the war for female voters for a generation as the fight over the future of the court becomes a debate over Roe v. Wade, and whether women or the government should decide when, or even whether, a woman carries a pregnancy to term.
Even before the Kennedy seat was in play, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted the week before Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement showed that 67 percent of respondents did not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. Of that group, 68 percent of all women, 73 percent of independents and 74 percent of women aged 18-49 said the decision should stand as is. A similar Quinnipiac University poll, taken after the Kennedy announcement, showed that 65 percent of women and 63 percent of all respondents agreed with the landmark 1973 decision.
But buried in that and other data are signs that young women, in particular, seem to assume that the issues in Roe v. Wade were decided long ago.
Progressive outfit Demand Justice conducted two focus groups in Ohio last month, one with highly educated white women and the other with black millennials - essentially the Democrats’ primary audience. And neither group fully understood the relevance of the Supreme Court vacancy to the future of reproductive rights for women. When one participant was asked about the chances of Roe v. Wade being reversed, she didn’t seem worried. At all. “I think it’s completely unlikely,” she said.
Republicans couldn’t ask for much more in terms of an electorate that could be primed to fight them, but doesn’t seem to be at the moment. But that could easily change, especially if history repeats itself.
Take yourself back to 2012. It wasn’t very long ago, but it was the year it felt like Republicans had hopped in a time machine back to the days when nearly all decisions in a woman’s life were made by someone else.
As Rick Santorum surged in the GOP presidential primary, the focus turned to comments he made in 2006, when he called contraception “harmful to women” and “harmful to society.”
Coming to Santorum’s defense, GOP megadonor Foster Friess told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he didn’t know what why anybody needed to pay for contraception in the first place. “On this contraceptive thing, my gosh, it’s such (sic) inexpensive,” he said. “You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”
If the topic comes up again, you know where to find both men. Santorum is a conservative contributor on CNN and Friess is running for the Republican nomination for governor in Wyoming - they’re both still on the scene in a big way with microphones as a part of their job description.
Also in 2012, House Republicans held a hearing on insurance coverage for contraception, and invited an all-male panel of witnesses. New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s only question for them was, “Where are the women?”
To finish off the year, Missouri GOP Rep. Todd Akin was asked by a local television station whether abortion should be legal in instances of rape, an outcome he said wasn’t actually much of a problem. “From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Sen. Claire McCaskill’s challenger said. He went down in a ball of flames, losing a Senate seat that should have been in play.
The good news for Republicans is that a sharp nominee like Kavanaugh is very unlikely to wade into the issues surrounding Roe v. Wade at his confirmation hearing. Not only is it bad politics, a potential justice understands that there’s no way to know right now which case would come before the court, or what area of the law it could be relying on.
But the bad news is that Republican candidates in the midterms will be asked to talk about Roe v. Wade repeatedly. Some of those candidates have proved to be their party’s own worst enemies when it comes to talking about contraception and abortion, not to mention trying to convince women that it’s a good idea to overturn a Supreme Court decision that more than two-thirds of them believe is important and should stand.
If the past is prologue, the best thing to happen to Republicans could also be the worst. Only they can determine which it is.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.