As Sen. Michael Bennet sought to encourage a small crowd of fellow Democrats not to give up the fight for abortion rights, Maryah Lauer stepped forward, bullhorn in hand, to exhort him to do more.
“Do you support ending the filibuster and expanding the court?” the 28-year-old called out from a quartet of fellow activists. “The Democrats are not doing enough.”
The confrontation was a sign of the frustration among many Democrats after the Supreme Court's decision last month to strip women of the constitutional right to abortion. The question heading into this year's midterm elections is whether the outrage will energize Democrats to vote or leave them disillusioned and staying home.
From rallies like the one in Colorado Springs to the corridors of the White House, Democrats are pressing an urgent message that voters can't give up and tune out. President Joe Biden, who often embraces Washington's institutional traditions, called last week for an exception to the Senate's 60-vote filibuster rules to put Roe v. Wade into federal law.
But the president and his aides have rejected more dramatic steps like adding additional justices to the Supreme Court or opening clinics on federal lands in states that ban the procedure. And that has left some in the party's more activist circles worried.
“People want to feel like you're looking at every option,” said Brian Fallon of Demand Justice, a Democratic group advocating court expansion, which Biden has rejected.
The party tried to vote abortion rights into federal law earlier this year, but the effort failed as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia sided with Republicans opposing the bill. Manchin and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona say they oppose making an exception to the filibuster rule for abortion rights, and reiterated their stance hours after Biden's statement, rendering it impossible.
Instead, the Democratic message is shaping up to be: Elect more Democrats to protect abortion rights. That, however, risks falling flat among Democrats who argue that passionate calls to vote hardly translate automatically into people doing as they're asked.
“There has got to be some articulation of what they get for voting in the election,” said Tresa Undem, a liberal Democratic pollster. “People want to hear real strategy, they want to hear real results.”
The problem is there may not be a strategy that will lead to real results, other than winning elections.
The party needs at least two more senators to end the filibuster and vote on abortion rights, and many worry that even if such a bill should pass, the high court would simply strike down a law establishing a national right to abortion. Even drastic moves like packing the court with liberal justices — unlikely to pass anyway — would be just temporary wins, because the GOP could just expand the court again once it wins power and add conservative justices.
Still, many Democrats say they expect their voters to be outraged into action by the recent ruling. They argue that Biden has truly limited options and any despair about his inability to override the ruling will be overcome by Democratic anger against Republicans in November.
“All the data shows Democratic intensity has gone up significantly in the last few weeks,” said Simon Rosenberg of NDN, a Democratic thinktank. “People in the Democratic Party may be disappointed with their leaders, but they understand, more graphically than ever, the threat the new right represents."
A recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found a growing percentage of Americans calling out abortion or women's rights as priorities for the government. In an open-ended question, 22% of U.S. adults named abortion or women's rights as one of up to five problems they want the government to work on, more than double since December.
Democrats have been bracing for a difficult election for months, with numerous polls showing Biden's approval dropping even among members of his own party. Traditionally, the president's party in midterm elections is not nearly as motivated as the opposition one, leading to big losses for the incumbent's supporters. The anger at the Supreme Court decision is a possible political lifeline to incumbents like Colorado's Bennet, if it doesn't curdle into apathy or despair.
Though Bennet represents a state that has voted solidly Democratic in several consecutive elections, he could still be vulnerable in November if a Republican wave materializes. The GOP has nominated a challenger who, notably for a Republican, supports a ban on later-term abortions but otherwise backs abortion rights.
Bennet has relied on Colorado voters' strong support of abortion rights to win his two prior elections, and he knows he cannot afford complacency or apathy among his voters.
During his speech at the June 29 Colorado Springs rally, Bennet spoke about the Supreme Court ruling and addressed Democrats' frustration and despair. “Don't give up,” he said. “We can't just accept things the way they are.”
It was after Bennet's speech, when he joined local Democratic nominees onstage in a show of party unity, that Lauer and the others charged in. After talking to reporters offstage, Bennet spoke with the demonstrators.
He told them he was also frustrated at how his party had let things get to the point where the GOP appointed a 6-3 majority on the high court. He agreed with them on ending the filibuster and codifying Roe but opposed packing the court. If Democrats did that, he said, “we will guarantee the majority in the Senate will be an anti-choice Senate.”
When the demonstrators continued to be frustrated that Bennet wouldn't agree to court-packing, he advised them, “There are not remotely 50 votes to do what you're suggesting in the Senate.”
“Aren't there 50 Democrats?!” cried one. Others demanded Bennet use “your power” to change Manchin's position.
Bennet had to leave, but a staffer stepped in and said that Bennet couldn't change Manchin's position. She noted the West Virginia senator had, despite Bennet's pleas, killed his prized program, an expanded child tax credit for parents.
As the crowd broke up, the sense of frustration was palpable. Several rally goers approached Lauer and her companions to thank them for pushing Bennet. One attendee started yelling out the home address of the local Republican congressman, Rep. Doug Lamborn, urging people to “make his life miserable.”
Lauer, who said she canvassed for Bennet's 2016 campaign, and the others said they weren't satisfied by their time with the senator.
“If they continue to do what we just witnessed, where they walk away, where they evade responsibility for doing their constitutional duties, I think that's a great way to lose,” she said.
One of the other protesters, Chauncy Johnson, 22, said he doesn't want Republicans to win, but he was thinking of withholding his vote due to his frustration with the party.
“I want Democrats to get a rude awakening,” he said.
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