Big election win for GOP, but now what?

Pro-life activists and other social conservatives rightly hailed the results of the Nov. 4 midterm election as a swing in their direction. But even though new pro-life legislation may now be possible in some states, at the federal level the election is unlikely to have much direct effect on the social issues during the next two years.

The one potential exception to that concerns nominations to the Supreme Court, supposing President Barack Obama has a chance to make more of them before leaving office. Although it’s problematical whether the new Republican Senate majority could or would outright reject a nominee, its mere existence might be enough to move Obama to propose a less extreme candidate than he otherwise would.

But however that may be, for now, at least, the election results themselves are a source of gratification to social conservatives. Before the vote, Obama famously said his policies were on the ballot, and against that background the results were reasonably viewed as repudiation by the electorate.

Hardly less gratifying to many was the fact that Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) will replace Harry Reid (D-Nevada) as Senate Majority Leader. Steven Ertelt of said of Reid that he “made sure that no pro-life bills received a vote in the Senate” — including measures to stop tax funding of abortions and to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

A look at the data

Exit polls produced conflicting results regarding the role played by social conservatives and their issues in the election.

Conservative activist Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition released a poll showing self-identified conservative Christians were 32 percent of the electorate and voted 86 percent Republican. Churchgoing Catholics were 9 percent of the electorate and gave Republican candidates 70 percent support, Reed said.

As for issues, the National Right to Life Committee cited a poll showing that 23 percent of voters said the abortion issue affected their vote and voted for candidates who oppose abortion, as against 16 percent who said abortion affected their vote and voted for pro-abortion candidates. But other exit polls showed voters overall supporting legalized abortion 53 percent to 43 percent and same-sex marriage 49 percent to 48 percent. In only one state with a pro-life measure on the ballot — Tennessee — did it win approval.

Democratic efforts to attract women voters by pitching so-called reproductive rights — access to contraception and abortion — appear to have mixed success. Married women voted Republican 53 percent to 45 percent, but non-married women split 61 percent Democratic and 37 percent GOP.

Pro-life legislation

Christian Science Monitor writer Linda Feldmann said the poll data “show that the Democrats have the upper hand on key social issues.”

“For most voters, gay rights, abortion rights and climate change are not the most important issues. The economy is still and will ever remain No. 1. But if the Republicans are to appeal to the broader, presidential-election-year electorate, they may need to rethink their posture on these issues — if not switching positions outright, at least de-emphasizing them,” Feldmann wrote.

That may be only wishful thinking, but it also may contain enough truth to lessen the post-election euphoria among social conservatives. Certainly enacting pro-life legislation at the federal level will remain a daunting challenge for at least the next two years.

A number of such bills have in fact been passed by the House since Republicans took control there in 2011. These include measures prohibiting abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy, applying Hyde Amendment funding restrictions on abortion to all federal funding sources, and requiring disclosure of whether medical insurance plans offered on Affordable Care Act exchanges include abortion coverage. But these and other pro-life bills have been stymied up to now in Harry Reid’s Senate.

In the next Congress, the House is likely to pass these bills again, but in the Senate the measures will be subject to a Democratic filibuster. And if they were actually to win congressional approval, they would face a presidential veto.

Although Obama has vetoed bills on only two occasions up to now — both times for technical flaws — a post-election Washington Post story quoted White House aides saying he is “ready to assert that power as frequently as it takes to protect the things he cares about.” The president’s words and deeds during the last six years make it clear that he cares about easy access to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Justices are key

That leaves Supreme Court nominations as a potential battlefield for testing the strength of the opposing sides in the struggle over social issues.

There is, of course, no certainty that any of the current justices will leave the court during the next two years, but age is enough to make it a real possibility. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a cancer survivor, is 81, Justice Stephen Breyer 76, Justice Antonin Scalia 78, and Justice Anthony Kennedy also 78.

Obama’s two choices for the Supreme Court up to now — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — make up its four-member liberal bloc along with Ginsburg and Breyer. If Scalia or Kennedy were to leave, the way would be open for the president to nominate a successor resembling Sotomayor and Kagan — far to the left of the conservative Scalia, that is, and probably somewhat to the left of the swing-voting Kennedy. The result would be a new five-member liberal majority in place of the present 4-4-1 split.

The Senate’s Republican majority would then have to decide whether to swallow the pill or make a serious fight to defeat the president’s candidate on the eve of new national elections. The future direction of the Supreme Court for years to come could hang on that.

Despite the ambiguous testimony of this year’s exit polls, Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council Action PAC issued a post-election statement claiming the existence of “a strong undercurrent of social values” in the voting. Whether any such undercurrent will be flowing in the U.S. Senate many months from now is far from clear.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.