The Roe v. Wade decision could upend the midterms. Here's where it might matter most

  • Democrats believe public opinion is on their side.
  • GOP Senate candidates in battleground states Nevada and New Hampshire downplayed the impact the ruling.
  • The first race to watch is just three weeks away and involves two Democrats.

WASHINGTON – The blockbuster leak last week of a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision jolted a midterm election season already underway. 

Facing stiff headwinds to hold onto power in Congress, Democrats immediately worked to make abortion rights a defining issue of the campaign, urging their base to elect lawmakers in Congress who support codifying Roe.

Democrats believe public opinion is on their side, and President Joe Biden set out to frame the potential Roe decision as the latest example of an extreme "ultra MAGA agenda."

More:Could Roe fire up Democrats the way Joe Biden hasn’t? Maybe, but the GOP would be energized, too

Republican strategists said the midterms will ultimately be a referendum on the past two years of Democratic control, with voters more concerned about rising inflation and an influx of migrants at the southern border. 

GOP Senate candidates in battleground states Nevada and New Hampshire downplayed the impact the ruling would have on their states, where abortion rights are protected. Yet Republicans also said they see opportunity to call out "extreme" positions of Democrats who support late-term abortions. 

"Expose the Democrats for the extreme views they hold," reads a National Republican Senatorial Committee messaging memo.

A potential decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade could upend races across the election.

Here are six of them to watch.

Cuellar-Cisneros Democratic primary 

The first race to watch is just three weeks away and involves two Democrats – one pro-abortion rights, the other anti-abortion rights.

Democratic challenger Jessica Cisneros, looking to unseat longtime Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, went on the attack against her opponent's record on abortion immediately after the release of the draft opinion.

The two are squared off in a Democratic primary runoff after neither won a majority of the vote in the March 1 primary in a district that runs from east of San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border.

More:How many abortions are actually performed in the US? Rates have declined for decades.

Cisneros slammed Cuellar as "the only Democrat to vote with Republicans" against codifying the Roe v. Wade decision through the Women's Health Protection Act, which the House voted 218-211 to approve last September.

"I’ll always stand for our health care and the right to choose," Cisneros said in a tweet. "In 21 days, Cuellar & I will face off in the Democratic runoff. Let’s defeat the last anti-choice Democrat in the US House."

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 12: Democratic candidate Jessica Cisneros (TX-28) speaks during the 'Get Out the Vote' rally on February 12, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) alongside candidates Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar gathered and rallied with supporters ahead of the Democratic March primaries.

Cuellar finished first in March with 48.4% of the vote, while Cisneros won 46.9%.

Cuellar, whose home and campaign office were raided by the FBI in January as part of an undisclosed investigation, stood by his anti-abortion record but said he opposes the draft opinion of the Supreme Court.

"As a Catholic I do not support abortion," the congressman said in a statement. "However, we cannot have an outright ban. There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother."

He said his "faith won't allow him to support a ruling" that would criminalize teenage victims of rape and incest and that "would make a mother choose between her life and her child's."

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, talks with reporters after a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Nevada Senate race 

Nevada is among the states where Democrats are playing defense as incumbents seek reelection, making it virtually a must-win for them to have any shot of retaining control of the Senate. 

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., will take on one of several Republican seeking the party's nomination, with former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt the GOP primary front-runner.  

Nevada: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D)     • Est. net worth in 2018:  $4,601,020     • Assumed office:  Jan. 3, 2017     • Current term ends:  2023     • Approval rating:  40% approve; 32% disapprove

Democrats believe abortion rights is an issue that could help swing Cortez Masto to victory in a race that polling has shown will likely be close. 

Support for abortion is higher in Nevada than any other Western state, according to polling from the Public Religion Research Institute, which found 64% of Nevadans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Nearly two-thirds of Nevada voters approved a referendum in 1990 protecting abortion rights in Nevada.

"It is an attack on women's reproductive freedom rights," Cortez Masto told the NBC affiliate in Nevada of the Supreme Court's draft onion. "And it will galvanize this country."

More:Republicans spent years attacking Roe v. Wade. Now they want to avoid discussing abortion

Expect the senator to highlight a major contrast with Laxalt, who opposes abortion rights. He called the draft opinion a "historic victory for the sanctity of life," but also noted Nevadans have already voted to make abortion rights legal in Nevada: "It is currently settled law in our state."

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 27: Republican Senate candidate from Nevada Adam Laxalt reacts to the crowd at a campaign event at Stoneys Rockin Country on April 27, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Laxalt, a former Nevada Attorney General, is hoping to unseat incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). (Photo by Ronda Churchill/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775805445 ORIG FILE ID: 1240290348

New Hampshire Senate race 

Similar dynamics are at play in New Hampshire, where another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Maggie Hassan, is seeking to hold on to her seat against several Republicans vying for the GOP nomination.

They include New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse and former Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. Gov. Chris Sununu passed on entering the race.

Like Cortez Masto in Nevada, Hassan was among the Democratic senators who stood on the steps of the Capitol Tuesday in a show of support for abortion rights.

"Congress must respond by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, enshrining Roe v. Wade as the law of the land and protecting the right of every woman to control her own destiny," Hassan said in a statement

New Hampshire Democratic Senate candidate, Gov. Maggie Hassan waves to supporters during an election night rally in Manchester, N.H., early Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016.

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

Morse, who said he was "proud of his pro-life record," downplayed the impact of the ruling on New Hampshire, which allows abortions up to 24 weeks.

 "This potential decision will have no impact on New Hampshire," he said. 

Wisconsin Senate race

Abortion rights could also figure prominently in the Senate race in Wisconsin, a state that presents Democrats perhaps their best opportunity to unseat a sitting Republican. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., will have to overcome low favorability ratings to win a third term.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, a 19th century Wisconsin law – currently blocked by the Roe decision – would go back into effect. That law bans doctors from performing abortions except to save the life of the mother. 

Democratic candidates seeking the party's nomination to run against Johnson were quick to criticize the Supreme Court's draft opinion.

"I'm at the Supreme Court, where it looks like Ron Johnson is going to get exactly what he wants," Democratic primary candidate Sarah Godlewski, the state's treasurer, said in an online ad released Thursday. "Overturning Roe v. Wade, reinstating Wisconsin's cruel abortion ban and putting doctors in jail."

An October poll from Marquette University Law School found 61% of Wisconsin voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 34% said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

More:Almost all abortions would be illegal in Wisconsin if leaked Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe stands

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks during a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Committee on Rules and Administration joint hearing Wednesday, March 3, 2021, examining the January 6, attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

In the past, Johnson has said he supported a national ban on abortion after 20 weeks, and that he wished the Supreme Court had not legalized abortion in 1973.

In a statement after the leaked draft opinion was published, Johnson did not comment on its substance, but instead alleged the goal of the leak was to "intimidate" conservative justices.

"This is yet another example of how the radical left intends to fundamentally transform America, undermine our judicial system, open our borders, drive gasoline prices to record levels, 40-year high inflation, and spark a crime wave," Johnson said.

Georgia Senate race

In most Senate battleground states, Republicans have been less eager than Democrats to go on the attack this week on abortion.

But that's not the case in Georgia, where Herschel Walker, the favorite to win the GOP nod, slammed the pro-abortion rights position of Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.

More:Whodunit? Speculation swirls as Supreme Court launches probe into leaked draft abortion opinion

"As a Christian and a father, I am pro-life and Senator Warnock is not," Walker said in a tweet. "There are many differences between us; this is one of them."

Former football player Herschel Walker speaks during the Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

Unlike Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, public opinion on abortion rights in more socially conservative Georgia is mixed. A Pew Research Center poll found that 49% of Georgia adults believe abortion should be illegal in most cases, compared with 48% who believe it should be legal. Similarly, a Public Religion Research Institute poll found 49% of Georgians believe abortion should be legal for all or most cases.

Warnock faces a tough task to duplicate the type of turnout in Atlanta and surrounding suburbs that helped him win one of two Georgia Senate runoff elections in January 2021. Yet abortion rights could be one issue that helps him energize the Democratic base.

"As a pro-choice pastor, I’ve always believed that a patient's room is way too small for a woman, her doctor, and the United States government," Warnock said in a statement. "I'll always fight to protect a woman's right to choose. And that will never change."

US Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock speaks during a press conference following the Democrats Policy Luncheon at the US Capitol building on November 2, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 0 ORIG FILE ID: AFP_9QW26H.jpg

Michigan governor's race 

In gubernatorial races,, Democrats across the board – Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Texas' Beto O'Rourke and Ohio gubernatorial nominee, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley – could each make protecting abortion rights central to their campaigns. 

But perhaps no governor facing reelection has been more outspoken than Michigan 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has framed her candidacy as the state's last defense to ensure women have a right to choose.

"I want every Michigander to know that no matter what happens in D.C., I'm going to fight like hell to protect access to safe, legal abortion in Michigan," Whitmer said in a video after the court draft opinion was reported. 

More:Where Michigan stands on abortion if Roe v. Wade overturned by Supreme Court

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she wants the Michigan Supreme Court to quickly rule on her lawsuit that seeks to nullify a law that bans abortion in the state (May 4)

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, a 1931 Michigan law banning abortion may take effect again. The law bans abortion except to save the mother's life. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. 

Whitmer filed a lawsuit in February asking the Michigan Supreme Court to declare the 1931 law unconstitutional based on the state constitution. The law has never been repealed, but after Roe, state laws banning abortion were deemed unenforceable. Republican lawmakers who control Michigan's state Senate and House aren't expected to send legislation repealing Michigan's ban to Whitmer's desk.

Several Republicans are vying for the party's nomination to take on Whitmer, including James Craig, a former chief of the Detroit Police Department, who is widely viewed as the front-runner.

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.