It's time for Democrats to use the leaked Roe opinion as a battering ram against the GOP

“Saturday Night Live” used to have a segment called “What if?” that asked the pressing questions on everyone’s mind. Like, what if Superman grew up in Germany instead of America? What if Napoleon had a B-52 bomber at Waterloo? And my personal favorite, what if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly

Here’s a new one that might seem equally hypothetical, but I’ve got to ask: What if Democrats could emerge from the midterm elections with enough senators to eliminate a stupid custom that’s kept them from getting things done, even things America sorely needs and most Americans support? In other words, what if Democrats had enough votes to kill the filibuster, an obstruction tactic that lets 41 of 100 senators block any bill they want?

The Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which established abortion as a constitutional right, has the potential to turn goals into realities.

Roe draft crystallizes extremism threat

Senate Democrats are on a doomed quest this week to protect abortion access with a vote Wednesday on a bill to make abortion legal nationally. They won't have enough support to get it done. But they'd be a lot closer if they could pass bills with 51 votes instead of 60.

House Democrats, moving fast with their narrow majority, have already passed most of their agenda. By electing more senators committed to ending the filibuster, and to protecting legal abortion, the party could finish a lot of unfinished business.

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Abortion rights written into national law. Federal standards to protect voting and elections. Tighter gun laws. The Equality Act extending civil rights protections to the LGBTQ community. Better access to health care. Progress on climate change. There might even be hope for President Joe Biden's family agenda that was part of the bill formerly known as Build Back Better – a poverty-busting expansion of the child tax credit, universal pre-K, paid family leave and subsidies for child care.

Changing Senate rules like the filibuster rule requires a simple 51-vote majority.  Democrats can’t get there yet, even with 50 senators and Vice President Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker, because two Democrats want to keep the filibuster. But mobilization over a Roe repeal, even if Supreme Court conservatives ultimately back off a total reversal, could be a midterms game changer. Here’s why:

►Endangered incumbents are in a better position. Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada are from states where supporters of legal abortion in all or most cases outnumber opponents 2 to 1, according to a New York Times polling analysis. Adults favor relatively unrestricted abortion access by 13 points in Arizona, where Sen. Mark Kelly is at risk.  

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►Democrats could pick up Republican seats in states where majorities support broad access to legal abortion by double-digit margins. Ohio's Senate nominee Tim Ryan and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is leading the May 17 primary field, both have pledged to fight for abortion rights and against the filibuster. In Wisconsin, the Aug. 9 Democratic primary is unsettled, but incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has a 36% approval rating.

So we're going to help families now?: If you truly value life, you'll ensure a healthy future for all 'saved' babies, right?

►The Supreme Court abortion threat crystallizes and strengthens the "extremism" argument Democrats must make this year. It's a stark, shocking example of where America is headed under Trumpism and the GOP, from attacks on public education and abortion access, to the Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol and tried to overturn the 2020 election, to the potential of the upcoming court ruling to more generally undermine the right to privacy. 

Biden is already making these points. Asked about abortion, he wondered what right would be challenged next – same-sex marriage? contraception? – and called "this MAGA crowd  … the most extreme political organization" in recent American history. He has referred to a plan released by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as Scott's "extreme Republican agenda" to raise taxes on Americans making under $100,000 a year.

That's not the way to help struggling parents. Democrats must get Republicans on the record not just about their abortion views, but also about their economic plans for low-income families with children.

Kill the filibuster once and for all

They must also resist the path of piecemeal filibuster exceptions for voting rights, abortion rights or other priorities. The filibuster should die, period. Minority rule is already baked into the Electoral College and a Constitution that gives Wyoming (population 578,803) the same number of senators as California (population 39,237,836). Two each.

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Without the filibuster, of course, a GOP Senate majority could easily pass bills I'd consider damaging – and if it controlled the House and White House, they'd become law. But the Democratic agenda is popular. I'm betting that, like the Affordable Care Act that Republicans never managed to repeal, even when they ran the table in Washington, D.C., it would be difficult to shrink people's rights and end family supports that make a real difference, like the child tax credit (as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly has acknowledged).

That's assuming Democrats can accomplish all that in the first place. It won’t be easy for them to enlarge their Senate majority or hold on to the House, even with Roe v. Wade as a battering ram. Unfavorable House maps and midterm trends are a challenge, as are surprises like swing-district Rep. Antonio Delgado leaving soon to become New York’s new lieutenant governor.

Longing for a return to ‘simpler times’? Here’s what the 1950s were like.

Horse-race speculation? Guilty. But in the face of real harm, real suffering, real constrictions of freedoms and privacy, I can’t see any other way forward. Democrats must play the long game. Elections are how they can get the majorities they need to address problems that are ruining and sometimes taking people’s lives. It's a long list, now topped by a conservative minority's determination to criminalize abortion and lead us backward into desperation, despair and death. 

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence