It did not take Sara Gideon long to leverage Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on abortion in her race against Senator Susan Collins.
When Ms. Collins, a Maine Republican, cast a decisive vote to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, she did so on the premise that he would uphold precedent to preserve abortion rights. But on Monday, Justice Kavanaugh dissented from a decision that did that, arguing that the court should have ruled differently than it did in a nearly identical case four years ago.
“Do you still think Brett Kavanaugh believes Roe v. Wade is settled law, @SenSusanCollins?” tweeted Ms. Gideon, Ms. Collins’s likely Democratic opponent.
Ms. Collins, a rare Republican who supports abortion rights, is facing the most difficult campaign of her more than 20-year Senate career, in large part as a result of her vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh — and the new ruling has taken what may be one of her biggest vulnerabilities and put it squarely at the center of public attention.
She is not alone: The ruling, which struck down a Louisiana law that could have left the state with just a single abortion clinic, reverberated rapidly through Washington and beyond, adding a new focus on one of the most divisive issues in American politics to the critical Senate races that will determine which party controls the chamber in 2021.
Advocacy groups both for and against abortion rights signaled that they would use Monday’s ruling — and especially the fact that President Trump’s appointees, Justices Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch, dissented — to try to motivate voters. And political strategists said that although many voters’ opinions on abortion were immovable, Monday’s ruling had vaulted it back into the national conversation after months of focus on the coronavirus and racial inequality.
“Everyone who voted wrong, we’re coming for you,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, wrote in a tweet that named Ms. Collins and Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, all of whom voted to confirm Justice Kavanaugh.
Ms. Collins said in a statement that she supported the ruling, and that it was “reading too much into this specific decision” to say Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent indicated that he would vote to outlaw abortion.
“As Justice Gorsuch noted, ‘In truth, Roe v. Wade is not even at issue here,’” she said. “And while Justice Kavanaugh called for additional fact finding in this case, he gave no indication in his dissenting opinion that he supports overturning Roe.”
Ms. Collins, Mr. Gardner and Mr. Tillis are seen as three of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate. And Ms. Ernst’s and Mr. Graham’s seats, while nowhere near as competitive, have become more so than they were a few months ago as President Trump’s popularity has eroded.
High-profile Democratic lawmakers like Senators Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York were quick to applaud the decision on Monday as a victory for reproductive rights. But in a sign of what is at stake in November, Democratic officials and Senate candidates like Ms. Gideon also moved swiftly to condemn their Republican opponents, and to emphasize that if Mr. Trump gets another Supreme Court pick, the next ruling could go the other way.
“Republican leaders will continue to go after the rights of women and anyone seeking reproductive care to make decisions about their own bodies, their own families and their own futures,” top Democratic National Committee members said in a joint statement. “Democrats are doing everything in our power to flip the Senate, defeat Donald Trump, and make sure Roe remains the law of the land.”
Nearly all sitting Republican senators voted to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, including those in competitive races this year. Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, a Republican who is in a tough battle against Mark Kelly, a Democrat, had not been appointed to her Senate seat at the time of the October 2018 vote, but indicated that she would have voted in favor.
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee said the party “values the life and health of both the mother and the unborn baby” and sought to use conservative anger over the ruling to drive turnout in the fall.
“It’s unfortunate to see the Supreme Court trample on the prerogatives of states with this decision,” the spokeswoman, Mandi Merritt, said in a statement. “It’s cases like this which serve as a reminder to why President Trump must be re-elected so he can appoint more conservative judges who won’t legislate from the bench.”
The Louisiana law at issue requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals, and Republican lawmakers argued on Twitter that the court had struck down legislation that “fundamentally protects women.” Supporters of abortion rights argue, and the Supreme Court’s majority opinion agreed, that requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges does not make women safer.
Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said in an interview that she believed the ruling could underscore the stakes of the election for voters who oppose abortion but align with Democrats on other issues.
Mr. Trump nominated two justices who “made the right decision on the biggest abortion case they’ve had the opportunity to rule on,” Ms. Quigley said. “Whoever wins this election is going to have the opportunity to appoint one to two Supreme Court justices in the next four years, and we have got to make sure that is President Trump, backed up by a pro-life Senate majority.”
Jenny Lawson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, framed Monday’s decision less as a victory than an averted catastrophe, saying in a statement, “Abortion access is not further decimated in Louisiana — for now — but that’s only because Donald Trump’s two Supreme Court appointees, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, didn’t get their way.”
Both Democratic and Republican pollsters said they believed that voters for whom abortion is a key issue were already highly energized and were unlikely to be moved by Monday’s decision.
But Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said that in Maine, Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent could undermine Ms. Collins’s longstanding argument that she is an independent voice within the Republican Party — something Maine voters tend to value.
The abortion issue itself could drive some suburban women away from Ms. Collins, she added, especially in the Portland area, but the issue of independence could loom larger statewide.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said that swing voters would weigh the strength of their convictions on abortion against concerns like the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice. “There are so many issues that have dominated our discussion almost to the exclusion of everything else,” Mr. Ayres said.
Monday’s ruling on abortion could “raise its significance somewhat, as we’re speaking today in June,” he said. “The question remains whether it will be that way a month or two or four from now.”
Republicans currently hold a 53-47 Senate majority, meaning Democrats must pick up three or four seats — depending who wins the presidency — to give them control of the chamber. They have at least that many targets in mind.
In Colorado, Mr. Gardner will try to hold off either John Hickenlooper, a well-known former two-term governor and Denver mayor, or Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker who has mounted a vigorous Democratic primary challenge and offered a statement Monday in support of the court’s decision, saying, “We cannot rest until reproductive rights are fully protected by federal law.”
Late Monday, the Colorado Democratic Party released its own statement attacking Mr. Gardner as someone who “has crusaded to restrict reproductive rights for years” and condemning his votes to confirm Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. A spokesman for Mr. Gardner’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Hickenlooper welcomed the news of the court’s abortion ruling, but also sought to keep the focus on the fall.
“We need to elect pro-choice leaders at every level of government,” he said in a statement. “And we can start by flipping Colorado’s Senate seat.”