Not that long ago, it seemed a lock for Republicans: The party would easily hold the U.S. House in November and perhaps win the six seats necessary to seize control of the Senate.
But the U.S. Supreme Court last week may have handed the Democrats an issue that could allow the party to minimize its losses by increasing turnout from the key voting bloc of single women who helped re-elect President Barack Obama in 2012.
With the five conservative male justices forming a narrow majority, the court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that some companies can cite religious reasons for not including contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans.
Although the ruling is limited to companies owned by a family or small group of people, it sparked an intense reaction from many women who objected to the idea that employers could have a stronger say in what contraceptives are available in their health plans.
Leading Republican presidential candidates for 2016 and some congressional leaders as House Speaker John Boehner enthusiastically embraced the ruling, prompting complaints from Democrats that the GOP wants to restrict women’s access to affordable contraceptives.
“This a welcome break for Democrats in an election cycle where they haven’t had many,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
Duffy predicted that Democrats are “going to use this to fire up women voters who tend to be big drop-off voters in mid-terms, especially single women. This is just the kind of thing that is a voting issue for them and they can use to great effect,” particularly in Senate races in Michigan, North Carolina and Colorado.
Neither of Ohio’s senators — Republican Rob Portman or Democrat Sherrod Brown — are up for re-election this year.
Sandy Theis, a Democratic strategist in Columbus, said “it will have an impact based on the outrage and anger I have seen on social media so far. It’s very important to be able to properly space your children and decide how many you want to have. This has a huge impact on women’s health.”
To Republicans, the Democrats are engaged in wishful thinking in a year where most issues are breaking toward the GOP. They point to the fact that Obama’s popularity continues to tumble and suggest he will drag some Democratic senators down to defeat.
They note that relatively few companies will convince a court they have religious objections to providing contraceptives. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that champions reproductive rights, 90 percent of employer-based health plans provide access to all 20 of the contraceptives approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But GOP officials are urging their candidates to focus on the key issues of jobs, economic growth and taxes. During the 2010 mid-term elections when Republicans won control of the House, 63 percent of voters said the economy was the No. 1 issue and 54 percent of those voted for a GOP candidate, while 49 percent of women voted Republican compared to 48 percent for Democrats.
“We won women in 2010 when we managed to focus on the economy,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster in Washington who advises Boehner, R-West Chester Twp. “There are a lot of issues facing women and this is one. But another is running their own economy every day.”
How Ohioans are reacting
Yet there are rumblings across Ohio and the country that should shake GOP confidence. It is one thing for a candidate for political office to oppose abortion rights because the nation is so divided on the issue. But overwhelming majorities of men and women support access to affordable birth control.
The justices followed up Thursday with another ruling likely to anger women when the court temporarily blocked the Obama administration from enforcing the contraceptive requirement for employees of Wheaton College, a Christian school.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented. Although the ruling is not permanent, it suggests that the court almost certainly will rule in favor of nonprofit religious organizations that oppose providing complete contraceptive coverage for their employees.
“I feel that the right-wing conservatives are becoming more and more based out of religion and not based out of actual politics, which again is kind of disheartening,” said Christine Olding, 25, of Dayton.
“I personally feel that corporations are being turned into people and women aren’t necessarily being acknowledged as a person as well,” she said. “I understand the idea of religious freedom. I completely get that. But I also understand the idea of a separation between church and state.”
Sheila Newlin, of Kettering, was pleased with the Supreme Court decision and believes employers should be able to choose what if any contraception offered to employees.
“I think they should be able to make the distinction what they offer.”
Jeri Robinson, 59, of Dayton, who describes herself as a Democrat, said “usually the Republicans are against birth control, abortions and all of the things that have to do with a woman’s body so I just think this is one more thing they can cheer on.”
Sharon Minick of Springfield believes any decision about contraceptives should lie with the individual and not an employer.
“It seems very odd that they can make the decision,” Minick said.
She’s not surprised Republicans are applauding the ruling and said it won’t change the way she votes in November.
The Republican nightmare scenario in this fall’s election is that the party will not be able to win the votes of women, African-Americans and Hispanics, the latter because of Republican opposition to overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.
President George W. Bush in 2004 won just 11 percent of the African-American vote while in 2012, exit polls showed women made up 53 percent of the electorate and 55 percent of them voted to re-elect Obama over Republican Mitt Romney.
“In 2016, my goodness,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant in Boston. “Any Republican who opposes the Hobby Lobby ruling or supports immigration reform will never get through the Republican nomination process.”
Democrats promptly seized on the Hobby Lobby decision to blitz financial supporters for campaign money, prompting one GOP official in Washington to say, “They’re raising money off of it just like we’ll raise money off of it,” by appealing to religious conservatives.
Typical was an e-mail appeal by Ohio Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ed FitzGerald who pleaded for $5 donations and vowed he was “ready to take a stand for hard-working families protect the health choices of women and families. Not one of the three female justices sided with Hobby Lobby’s argument that their factually incorrect beliefs about birth control trumped women’s right to basic health care.”
But though Democrats can raise money from the court’s ruling, the real question is whether they can increase the size of the women voter turnout. Olding, the Dayton woman, said she would “definitely research and try to figure out who exactly supports this because I won’t vote for them. If they support this then that means they don’t support me as an individual.”
Emma Ginader of the Washington bureau and staff reporter Michael Cooper contributed to this story.