In Nevada, a potential Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights could upend a Senate battle

Dylan Wells
  • Democrats hope that a looming Supreme Court decision on abortion will help them win the Senate seat.
  • The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List is targeting Nevada with a door knocking campaign next month.

Republicans and Democrats alike see Nevada's U.S. Senate race this year as pivotal to controlling the upper chamber of Congress, but a looming Supreme Court decision on abortion rights could upend the election and, Democrats hope, keep the seat blue.

Outrage over the potential loss of a constitutional right to an abortion could be particularly galvanizing for more liberal voters in Nevada, Democrats say, because the state has a long history of supporting reproductive rights.

But conservative groups are gearing up as well, saying that a national spotlight on abortion could help them retake that Senate spot from the incumbent, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto. Recent Suffolk University/Reno Gazette Journal polling shows Cortez Masto trailing both of her prospective GOP challengers. 

With the U.S. Senate currently split 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the tie-breaking vote, a flip of just one seat could have outsized significance for the second half of President Joe Biden's term and his list of domestic policy goals.

“I absolutely believe that the renewed focus and really the extreme position that the Republican Party is taking – essentially making abortion illegal, making it the role of the government to decide about pregnancy – is so unpopular that it will be a motivating issue for millions of voters next fall,” said Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood and current co-chair of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. 

But the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that aims to end abortion nationwide, sees it differently. The group is planning a voter contact campaign including door-to-door canvassing in nine battleground states, including Nevada, starting in mid-May. 

“The anticipated decision in the Supreme Court case is going to put abortion back into the national spotlight, and this is something that the pro-life movement should relish,” said Mallory Carroll, a spokesperson for the group.

Abortion in Nevada 

Nevada is uniquely positioned in the debate over abortion as one of only nine states that have abortion protections codified in the state's constitution, a right enshrined by a 1990 ballot measure that passed with support from nearly two-thirds of Nevadans. Polling suggests that a vast majority of Nevadans remain in favor of abortion rights, including a majority of Republicans. 

That means that if the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade, abortion will remain legal in Nevada.

But advocates for abortion rights in the state argue that the issue is still politically relevant for Nevadans, and the fact the right was guaranteed over 30 years ago by over 63% of voters suggests that Nevada is at its heart a state that supports abortion rights.

The nation's highest court is expected to decide this summer on a Mississippi law banning almost all abortions after 15 weeks. The conservative-controlled bench is expected to at least in part scale back or fully overturn the constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade. 

Such a decision in the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, would be a major win for anti-abortion advocates around the country. State legislatures have passed a wave of laws restricting abortion on the state level in anticipation of the rollback.

In Nevada, Democratic candidates for Congress are talking about abortion on social media twice as much as Republican candidates, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Twitter and Facebook posts from House and Senate campaigns published since last July.

Cortez Masto draws a direct connection between the anticipated decision and her own reelection campaign.

“If that decision takes away the right of a woman to choose, there is no doubt in my mind that people in Nevada are going to be paying attention and very concerned about it,” she told USA TODAY.

More:What did Roe v. Wade actually say? The landmark abortion rights ruling, explained 

Catherine Cortez Masto arrives at a Clinton rally on Oct. 23, 2016, in North Las Vegas.

Control of the Senate could hinge on Nevada

Democrats hold both of the Silver State’s Senate seats, three of the four congressional seats and the governorship, but the state remains competitive. Biden won Nevada by only 2.4 percentage points in 2020.

A Suffolk University/Reno Gazette Journal poll of likely midterm voters released last week found Cortez Masto trailing both of her Republican opponents, frontrunner Adam Laxalt and Purple Heart veteran Sam Brown. She trailed Laxalt 40% to 43% and Brown 39% to 40%. Many Republicans see the race as one of the top pickup opportunities this cycle and Laxalt as one of the cycle's top recruits

Cortez Masto became the first country's Latina senator when she was elected in 2016, and she previously served as Nevada’s attorney general. 

Laxalt also served as the state’s attorney general and ran for governor in 2018 but lost to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. His family has a long political history: He is the grandson of former Nevada Republican governor and senator Paul Laxalt and the son of former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Laxalt co-chaired former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in the state and helped lead efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Nevada after Biden won the state. Trump has endorsed his Senate bid, as has Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He's one of only two non-incumbent Senate candidates endorsed by both men. 

Donald Trump's Nevada campaign co-chairman and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt speaks at a campaign event for U.S. President Donald Trump at Xtreme Manufacturing on September 13, 2020 in Henderson, Nevada.

Whoever wins the Senate race will help determine which party controls the chamber and could provide a key vote either against or for abortion if the Senate takes up legislation in response to the decision. 

In an October poll conducted by OH Predictive Insights, 69% of Nevadan respondents identified as "pro-choice" versus 31% who identified as "pro-life." Among Democratic respondents, 79% identified as "pro-choice" and 21% identified as "pro-life." Among Republican respondents, 54% identified as "pro-choice" and 46% identified as "pro-life." 

Caroline Mello Roberson, southwest regional director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Nevada could still be impacted by a Supreme Court decision despite the state level protections – especially people coming from other states to Nevada for abortions if the procedure is illegal in their home states. She warned that out-of-state visitors forced to come to Nevada to access an abortion could put a crunch on Nevada's limited number of providers. 

More:26 states plan to ban abortion in some form if the Supreme Court OKs Mississippi's ban. Here's who is most at risk.

“You have places like Idaho that are restricting abortion access. That affects the northern half of the state, and places like Arizona, which affects the southern half,” Roberson said. 

Pro-choice and anti-abortion demonstrators rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on November 01, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Cortez Masto echoed concerns about people from outside the state having to come to Nevada for an abortion. 

“Why should a woman have to go across state lines to get health care and have her health care needs taken care of, take the time off from work or jeopardize losing her job just because she needs access to a doctor and she can't get it in her community?” Cortez Masto said.

Laxalt's stance on abortion

During Laxalt’s 2018 gubernatorial bid, he told local news station KOLO 8 that “we're going to look into it” when asked about proposing a change to the state’s abortion law.  His campaign at the time said the comment was taken out of context, and that “Laxalt has zero interest in ‘undoing’ the 1990 law in question.” 

Asked in October about how he would vote if the Senate considered codifying Roe, Laxalt declined to speculate.

Melissa Clement, the executive director of Nevada Right to Life, refuted the argument that Laxalt has evaded questions about abortion. The organization has endorsed Laxalt in the Senate race. 

“All you have to do is Google Laxalt-pro-life. And he's never backed away from it,” Clement said. 

The Laxalt campaign did not respond to an interview request, but in a statement, Laxalt said that Cortez Masto's position on abortion "represents the rising tide of abortion extremism from the far left."

“As Senator, Laxalt will stand against taxpayer funding for abortion,” reads Laxalt’s campaign website. “When elected, he will be a reliable vote against extreme Democrat proposals."

More:Abortions in Texas fall by 60% under the most restrictive regulations in the US

Pro-life activists take part in the 49th annual March for Life, on January 21, 2022, in Washington, DC. The march takes place every year on the anniversary of US Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973. The march drew a large crowd in 2022 as the US Supreme Court turns its attention to a Mississippi abortion case that could affect the legality of abortion across the nation.

Will abortion break through as top issue?

Republicans who spoke to USA TODAY cast doubt that abortion will break through as a top issue in the election, citing the wide array of other issues on voters’ minds, like the economy and inflation. They said Democrats are using abortion to distract from such areas, where they feel the GOP has an advantage. 

GOP consultant Jeremy Hughes, who works on Nevada campaigns, said abortion won't have an effect on the race because abortion rights have been enshrined in the state by the 1990 ballot measure. 

“If [Democrats] are looking to use this as an issue in Nevada, then they're going to have to be disingenuous and lie to their voters," he said. "The Supreme Court decision, however it goes, will have no effect on Nevada." 

Likewise, Katharine Cooksey, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said: “Poll after poll shows Nevada voters are most concerned about the out-of-control cost of living, keeping a job, and having a strong economy.” In the Suffolk University/Reno Gazette Journal poll, respondents said the most important issue to them was inflation, followed by jobs and the economy.

Democrats counter that abortion is an economic issue. “For many people, they make decisions about the size of their family for a whole host of reasons, including economic reasons,” said Richards. 

“I think the only group of people that are rooting harder for the Supreme Court to uphold the Mississippi law outside of pro-life people are Democrat consultants, because they are praying that there is an issue that happens that can change up the way the election is looking at the moment,” said Hughes. 

Contributing: Aleszu Bajak