WASHINGTON -- Democrats and Republicans eagerly seized on Monday’s Supreme Court birth-control ruling as an important electoral momentum-builder, but it’s doubtful the decision will have a big impact on November’s congressional races.
People are far more concerned about the jobs and the economy, and political history suggests that midterm elections tend to be referendums on incumbents.
That didn’t stop both parties from moving for advantage within minutes of the court ruling.
“Republicans in Congress have long made it clear that their ideological agendas come before a woman’s right to access quality, affordable health care, and now the Supreme Court is only piling on even more,” protested Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York.
Republicans were ecstatic that their favorite political pinata, the Affordable Care Act, was back in the spotlight so they could slam it anew.
“The court has made clear today that the Obama administration’s assault on religious freedom in this case went too far,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate.
The 5-4 decision exempts closely held for-profit companies from providing government-mandated birth control services if they violate the owners’ religious beliefs.
Democrats moved to stoke turnout among their base, notably women. “Since the Supreme Court decided it will not protect women’s access to health care, that jobs falls to us. . . . Contribute $3 today, and show them we’re going to fight this backwards decision in the U.S. Senate,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said to supporters hours after the ruling.
At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest maintained that the decision “jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies.” Contraceptives can be used for medical purposes other than birth control.
The biggest Democratic target is unmarried women, but evidence suggests that the economy is what they care about most.
Also, warning about contraception and health care plays to an already-captive audience.
“If you’re a single woman motivated by access to birth control, you’re probably motivated to vote already,” said Nathan Gonzales, the deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Another risk: Maintaining that women are losing access to health care might invite skepticism, since that’s generally not the case.
Democrats in more conservative states need to be particularly careful. “I support the right of all American women to have full access to contraception, and respect the exemption of churches from providing this service, if it is against their teachings,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s in a tight race against Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for his seat.
She called the court ruling wrong, adding that “where employers are found to be exempt from requirements that they provide such coverage” affordable insurance should be available.
Republicans have to be careful too.
Some charged that Democrats were out to stifle religious freedom, a questionable claim. “The right to religious liberty, as enshrined in the First Amendment, remains under an incredible assault by this administration on a variety of fronts,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Repeal is the louder battle cry.
The decision is “another reminder that the president’s health care law was poorly written and continues to hurt more people than it helps,” said Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming, a physician.
But repeal is unlikely as long as Barack Obama remains president. Nor is it probable after that: Republicans would probably need the presidency, 60 Senate votes and a House of Representatives majority.
The public has shown it’s more concerned about other matters. The Supreme Court upheld most of the law in June 2012, and it had little apparent effect on that November’s outcome.
This year, economic concerns dominate political debate. A Bloomberg national poll earlier this month found unemployment and jobs and a decline in real income the top concern of 44 percent of Americans. Health care, at 17 percent, was a distant second.
The Republican playbook has been largely to bash Obama and the sluggish economy. So far, the party appears to have a decent shot at winning the six Senate seats it needs to control the chamber. Its best bets are in seven states where Democrats now hold Senate seats but that Republican Mitt Romney carried in the 2012 presidential election.
Chances are the Monday Supreme Court decision won’t be a deciding factor.
“This is the sort of ruling that hardens existing opinions,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “There’s not a lot of historical precedent to suggest this will succeed as a major issue.”
Lesley Clark in Washington and Sam Youngman of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky contributed to this article.