Would Roe v. Wade's demise reshape the midterm elections? Ask that question in October.

How would the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade affect midterm elections? It's almost too early to tell.

Susan Page
USA TODAY
  • History says there's time for other developments to upend the midterms before November.
  • "Trigger laws" in 13 states means the impact of a Supreme Court decision would be instantly felt.
  • "It's the wild card," Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said in an interview.

Democrats who hope and Republicans who fear that the Supreme Court's draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade will reshape the midterm elections may want to remember this: It's only May.

History says there's plenty of time for developments on this and other fronts to upend the political landscape before November, which is why strategists have dubbed the election-year phenomenon an "October surprise."

Those intervening events, if they happen, could involve the Russian invasion of Ukraine or a virulent new COVID variant or some completely unexpected crisis — or the abortion issue again. 

The success of anti-abortion activists in enacting "trigger laws" in 13 states means that the impact of a court decision overturning abortion rights would no longer be speculative. The laws are designed to instantly snap into effect, and nine states have restrictive laws on the books that haven't been enforced since the Roe decision was handed down in 1973. 

What's next:Anti-abortion groups could win a 50-year fight to end Roe. They aren't stopping there.

Even Republican governors who support the laws sounded wary on Sunday TV interview shows about the controversies that would surely follow. The on-the-ground impact of a final court decision could fuel political firestorms bigger than the one that erupted last week with the leak of the draft of a majority decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito.

"Yes, our trigger law will go into effect," Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said on CNN's "State of the Union." His state's attempt to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy is the basis for the Supreme Court appeal now being decided. The trigger law "does have an exception for rape; it does have an exception for the life of the mother," he said. But under questioning, he acknowledged that the law didn't include an exception for victims of incest.

And when asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether he would sign a ban on contraception — since he believes that life begins at conception — Reeves didn't directly answer.  "Well, I don't think that's going to happen in Mississippi," he said. "I'm sure they'll have those conversations in other states."

Demonstrators protest outside the Supreme Court on May 3.

On ABC's "This Week," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would have preferred that the trigger law he signed in 2019 had included exceptions for rape and incest; it doesn't. "I expect those exceptions to be a significant part of the debate in the future," he said, "even though we're going to immediately go to restrict abortions ... with the exception of the life of the mother in danger."

The law, he said, "simply expresses the will of the people of Arkansas."

A national abortion ban?McConnell calls US abortion ban 'possible,' says he won't change filibuster to pass it

Poll: 64% say Roe should stay 

But Americans overall oppose overturning Roe v. Wade by an overwhelming margin. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those surveyed in a CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday said the court should uphold the decision as it is; just 36% said it should be overturned. 

If it is overturned, 65% said abortion should be legal in most or all cases in their state, while 23% said it should be illegal in most cases; 12% said it should be illegal in all cases. 

The poll of 2,088 adults, taken Wednesday through Friday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

Republicans worry that the abortion issue puts them at risk of retribution from some voters whose support they need at a moment the GOP seemed poised to score big gains in the midterm elections. President Joe Biden's approval rating has been stuck in the low 40s, a drag for Democratic candidates, amid unhappiness with his handling of inflation and crime.

Whether abortion rights can counter traditional kitchen-table concerns isn't clear. What's more, some other issue could intrude before voters go to the polls. 

Beyond abortion:The Supreme Court has overruled itself on segregation and saluting the flag. Will Roe be next?

In recent years, late-breaking issues have enabled presidents to stave off the losses that the party in power usually suffers in midterms. 

In October 2002, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the George W. Bush administration pushed for a vote in Congress on authorizing the use of force in Iraq, creating political dilemmas for some Democrats; the GOP managed to gain eight House seats the next month. In October 1998, formal House hearings to impeach President Bill Clinton were launched, creating blowback that helped Democrats swing five seats that November.

More recently, the election of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 prompted a massive "Women's March" on Washington the day after his inauguration and helped forge a movement that continued through the 2018 midterms. An increase in female turnout helped Democrats gain 41 seats and claim control of the House.

Abortion alternative:Abortion by pill figures to rise if Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade

Is abortion ruling a 'wild card'?

Would the reaction to Roe v. Wade's repeal be powerful this fall?

That is what Democrats hope and Republicans fear. 

"It's the wild card," Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said in a brief interview. At events he attended in his state on Friday and Saturday, the Supreme Court's decision was the leading topic on voters' minds.

"It will not be the only issue," Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said on ABC, saying that the economy, Ukraine and attacks on the democratic process would all matter. "But clearly, when you look at, especially, a new generation of women are looking at this and saying, wait a minute, my mom and my grandma are going to have more rights than I’m going to have going forward?"

She said, "They’re going to look at this and say, what world do I live in?"