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With Republican Gains in Senate, Social Conservatives Tighten Their Grip

Category: Political News,Politics

WASHINGTON — Republican victories in crucial Senate and governors’ races this week have tightened social conservatives’ grip across American government, strengthening the party’s power as it seeks to limit abortion rights and push harder to the right on a number of divisive cultural issues.

Even as Democrats captured the House and promised to act as a check on President Trump and Republican policy priorities, conservatives were breathing a deep sigh of relief on Wednesday after strengthening their majority in the Senate. Their gains in the upper chamber could have a far-reaching impact on the remainder of the president’s term, particularly on his ability to continue shifting the ideological balance on the federal courts.

The election of conservatives to Democratic-held Senate seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota — as well as to an open seat in Tennessee, and possibly in Arizona, Florida and Mississippi, where races have not been decided — will almost certainly add to the Republicans’ one-seat majority. It will also dilute the votes of moderate Republicans like Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both of whom are abortion rights supporters who have opposed judges on the grounds that they could threaten Roe v. Wade.

President Trump, who has already filled vacancies on the federal bench at a faster pace than most previous presidents, and cemented a conservative majority on the Supreme Court with two appointments so far, is now in a stronger position to put forward even more conservative judicial nominees if he chooses to.

In taking stock of conservatives’ gains in the Senate on Wednesday morning — a bright spot in an election in which the Republicans lost their hold on many moderate suburban districts and seven governorships — Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, vowed to continue pressing ahead with the confirmation of judges.

From the South to Appalachia to the Great Plains, high turnout among evangelical Christians translated into wins for social and religious conservatives as well as anti-abortion ballot measures, demonstrating the potency of a different kind of culture war issue in the midterm elections — one that had nothing to do with immigration or caravans or the politics of grievance and revenge that President Trump campaigned on so aggressively.

In Iowa, voters re-elected a governor who signed a bill this year that sought to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat could be detected — a move intended to provoke a legal challenge to Roe at the Supreme Court. (A federal court later put the law on hold.) The newly elected Republican governors in Florida and Ohio are opponents of abortion rights and defeated candidates who supported protecting Roe.

In West Virginia and Alabama, voters approved ballot initiatives that would essentially ban abortion, and one that even gives rights to a fetus, in the event that a new constitutional challenge to Roe succeeds at the Supreme Court — an outcome that activists on both sides of the debate believe is possible since the confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh tilted the court decidedly to the right.

In the North Dakota Senate race — one of three in which Republicans prevailed by defeating a Democratic incumbent who supported abortion rights — the winner, Representative Kevin Cramer, had cut an ad against late-term abortions featuring his pregnant daughter and brought his newborn grandchild onstage for his victory speech.

In Missouri, the day before the election, Senator Claire McCaskill endorsed the Hyde Amendment — which bars federal programs like Medicaid from paying for most abortions — but it appeared too late to convince many voters, and she was defeated.

Social conservatives said on Wednesday they were elated by the victories in the Senate and in the governors’ races, which they believe provide openings to push their agenda in the judiciary and the states even if a Democratic-led House ties up legislative priorities of President Trump and Washington Republicans.

“We are so much stronger than we were before,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group that led an extensive turnout operation this year in states like North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri, where incumbent Democratic senators were defeated by anti-abortion Republicans. “We win when we go back to our roots,” she added.

Having more anti-abortion governors in states that have previously advanced anti-abortion legislation, and a stronger anti-abortion majority in the Senate, also means that activist groups can focus their spending on the president’s re-election in 2020, instead of pouring money primarily into preserving or building a Republican Senate.

“The anti-choice movement is putting all of the pieces together they believe need to be in place to end legal abortion,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral Pro-Choice America. “The Republican Party has next to no rank and file left except for the extreme anti-choice movement and the white nationalist movement, who don’t knock doors that much.”

Abortion rights advocates point to significant victories on Tuesday: There are new Democratic representatives in the House who will replace Republicans who oppose reproductive health rights, and new governors in four states — Nevada, Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan — all of whom favor abortion rights.

“Legislatively defunding Planned Parenthood is off the table,” said Andrew Taverrite, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Voters from every political party sent a clear message last night: They want more access to health care, not less.”

But even if federal legislation is no longer an option to anti-abortion activists, the courts are where the biggest battles ahead most likely lie.

And while Republicans will not be in the majority in the House, the hard-line Freedom Caucus is expected to wield more influence inside the Republican conference because there will be fewer moderate Republicans in that chamber.

“Conservatives won last night,” said David McIntosh, a former House member and president of the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative advocacy group. “Had Republicans all run that way, arguably we could have kept the House.”

The Faith & Freedom Coalition, the Christian conservative group founded by Ralph Reed, which had an extensive ground game this cycle, found in its data that evangelicals made up more than a quarter of the midterm electorate, and about 80 percent of them voted Republican. In 2016, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump.

Evangelicals will also be “indispensable to Trump’s re-election prospects in 2020,” said Mr. Reed, “in what promises to be the mother of all turnout battles.”

Mr. Trump ingratiated himself to white evangelicals by promising, and delivering, their biggest policy priorities — none more important than the naming of two conservative Supreme Court justices who had the approval of anti-abortion groups.

For now, staying loyal to Mr. Trump remains a winning strategy for evangelical leaders. Ron Johnson, the pastor of Living Stones Church in northwest Indiana, who urged his congregation to support the “no brainer” choice of Mike Braun for Senate on Sunday, said he was “thrilled” with Tuesday’s results.

“We believe in good and evil, in God, in his agenda,” he said. “I honestly believe that everything the pro-choice movement was founded on is running out of gas.”

Activists see the potential for strengthening their base even more in 2020.

Last Sunday, Brent Burnett, a congregant at Mr. Johnson’s church, said he did not vote for Mr. Trump two years ago, citing concerns over his character. But now, “he’s kept his word” on the issues most important to him, Mr. Burnett said, from abortion to the economy.

“I’d definitely vote for him next time,” he said.


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