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With high court in play, Democrats link abortion rights and health care

With the makeup of the Supreme Court in play, abortion rights suddenly appears to be a top issue of the midterms. But at least in one Midwest race, health care overall looms large in the minds of voters.

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Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asks a question during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington in January 2018.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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On Monday, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri was on her third health-care event of the day. Blessedly, the Democrat noted, this one was air-conditioned.

The endangered senator, running for reelection in a state that President Trump won by 19 points, has put health care front-and-center in her campaign – a potentially winning issue in a race considered a toss-up.

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But last week a political tornado barreled through her campaign and those of other red-state Democrats trying to keep their seats in a Senate that Republicans narrowly control. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a crucial swing vote on the United States Supreme Court, announced his retirement, throwing these senators into a precarious position as they face an expected vote on whether to confirm his replacement early this fall.

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Suddenly, the balance of the court is at stake, with no issue getting as much attention as the highly charged one of abortion. Missouri is an antiabortion state, but that’s not where Senator McCaskill stands. “Most conservatives know that I have a long record of supporting women’s reproductive health freedoms ... and that is not going to change,” she told reporters Monday.

What’s interesting here is the way in which McCaskill, and Democrats generally, talk about abortion rights – long emphasizing the broader context of health. It’s not only a “less emotionally charged way to talk about it, but a more realistic way ... because so many facets of it have to do with health care,” says Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women and politics at the University of Virginia.

It’s not surprising then – and indeed a “smart” strategy, according to Professor Lawless and others – that Democratic Senate minority leader Charles Schumer of New York is highlighting and pairing abortion rights and health care as issues that hang in the balance with Justice Kennedy’s replacement.

“Two issues of … profound consequence, which could well defeat a nominee who opposes them, are the fate of affordable health care and a woman’s freedom to make the most sensitive medical decisions about her body,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed Monday.

If Americans do not want to see a justice who could overturn the 1973 landmark case that legalized abortion – Roe v. Wade – or who will “undo” health care, he wrote, they should tell their senators not to vote for a nominee from Mr. Trump’s list of 25 candidates.

That list, he pointed out, was vetted by organizations committed to overturning Roe and shrinking government’s role in health care. As a candidate, Trump said he would nominate justices who would reverse Roe, and he has worked to repeal and weaken the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. He’s expected to announce his nomination Monday.

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Recent polls show upward of 60 percent of Americans want the Supreme Court to uphold abortion rights – though not necessarily without restrictions. But is that a top issue for voters in a midterm election year?

On Election Day 2016, a fifth of all voters said the Supreme Court was their No. 1 voting issue – and most of them voted for Trump, says Mallory Quigley, spokesperson for the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports antiabortion candidates and lobbies on behalf of law and policy restricting abortion rights. Supporters are “fired up” over the vacancy, she says.

The advocacy group plans to protest outside of senators’ offices. It has 500 door-to-door canvassers on the ground in Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Florida, and it will soon expand to West Virginia and North Dakota – all states that Trump won and where Democrat senators are up for reelection. Last year, Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were the only three Democrats to break from their party and vote to confirm Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.

“This is a major vulnerability for Heitkamp, Donnelly, and Manchin ... but also for people like Bob Casey [a Democrat from Pennsylvania] who calls himself pro-life, Claire McCaskill, and other vulnerable Democrats in states that Trump won overwhelmingly,” says Ms. Quigley.

In Missouri, McCaskill’s likely Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, has seized on the Supreme Court vacancy, challenging McCaskill to a debate on the issue. “The future of our country is on the line in the Supreme Court,” he said last week. On Facebook, he calls the high-court vacancy McCaskill’s “nightmare.”

In April, the state House passed a “fetal pain” law banning abortions after 20 weeks. Women must receive counseling that discourages abortion and nearly all of the state’s women (94 percent) live in counties where no clinic provides abortion.

McCaskill told reporters she is happy to debate Hawley on a variety of issues and in a town hall setting. But her main rejoinder to Hawley is that he has signed on to a lawsuit from 20 conservative states that takes aim at the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions – one of the most popular portions of the law. Indeed, her Monday afternoon campaign event was focused on that very issue.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake does not see a catastrophe for McCaskill if she rejects a Trump nominee for reasons that include abortion rights. “I don’t think it’s that challenging because even people who would be considered ‘pro-life’ – not the hardcore pro-lifers – a lot of people are in the middle.”

That would be someone like Marty Walsh, of Glendale, Mo., who came to the McCaskill event and describes himself as “pro-life” – a former seminary student who studied the Roman Catholic viewpoint on the issue. But that’s just one issue, he says. Health care is also “very important” to him, and he says he’s upset “by what Republicans are trying to do to health care.” His state has not expanded Medicaid, for instance, and rural hospitals keep closing.

A week ago, says Ms. Lake, the No. 1 issue for Democrats was health care – the issue where they have the single biggest advantage. Then came the Supreme Court vacancy. But that “elevates the saliency of other issues” where the Supreme Court has ruled, including the Affordable Care Act and coverage for contraception. “There’s an easy linkage for these two issues,” and that, she says, will motivate swing voters and the base: women, baby boomers who don’t want to lose their health benefits, and Millennials who thought reproductive rights were resolved.

“I’m worried about the future of women” if an anti-abortion nominee is confirmed, says Christine Leeper, a content provider for bloggers and one of the younger people at the event. As for McCaskill, “I think what could get her to win is health care, because there are so many pro-life Republicans, so many older people, who don’t want health care taken away.”