Kamala Harris excoriated Republicans for severely curtailing access to abortion.Composite: AFP via Getty Images, AP

Kamala Harris’s Friday visit to Arizona was planned before the state’s top court upheld a 160-year-old law that bans almost all abortions. But the news galvanized the vice-president’s message, one that has already yielded stunning victories for liberals since Roe v Wade fell nearly two years ago.

That message is simple: abortion bans happen when Republicans are in charge.

Related: Abortion rights across the US: we track where laws stand in every state

“Women here live under one of the most extreme abortion bans in our nation. … The overturning of Roe was without any question a seismic event, and this ban here in Arizona is one of the biggest aftershocks yet,” Harris said at the Tucson event. “Overturning Roe was just the opening act of a larger strategy to take women’s rights and freedoms … We all must understand who is to blame. Former president Donald Trump did this.”

The ruling from the Arizona supreme court arrived on Tuesday, just days after a Florida supreme court ruling cleared the way for a six-week abortion ban, a decision that will cut off access to the procedure before many women even know they are pregnant. These back-to-back rulings roiled the United States, raising the already high stakes of the 2024 elections to towering new heights. Activists in both states are now at work on ballot measures that would ask voters to enshrine abortion rights in their states’ constitutions in November.

Democrats are hopeful these efforts – and the potential threat of more bans under a Trump administration – will mobilize voters in their favor, because abortion rights are popular among Americans, and Republicans have spent years pushing restrictions. Democrats have made abortion rights a central issue of their campaigns in Arizona, which was already expected to be a major battleground, and Florida, a longtime election bellwether that has swung further to the right in recent years.

For Joe Biden, who is struggling to generate enthusiasm among voters, turning 2024 into a referendum on abortion may be his best shot at defeating Donald Trump. But it remains an open question whether the backlash to Roe’s overturning will continue to drive voters in a presidential election year, when they may be more swayed by concern over the economy and immigration.

“In public polls that might just ask: ‘What’s your most important issue?’ You’re going to see abortion in the middle, maybe even towards the bottom,” said Tresa Undem, a co-founder of the polling firm PerryUndem who has studied public opinion on abortion for two decades. “But when you talk to core groups that Democrats need to turn out, it’s front and center.”

A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that Trump held double-digit leads when swing state voters were asked who would best handle the economy, inflation and immigration, but they trusted Biden more on abortion. A Fox News poll in March found that most voters in Arizona believe Biden will do a better job handling the issue of abortion, but it was less of a priority than the economy, election integrity and foreign policy.

Related: Arizona’s abortion ban is a political nightmare for Republicans in the 2024 election

For Biden, abortion is “the best issue for him right now”, Undem said. “All of the data I’ve seen on this upcoming election, young people are not nearly as motivated to vote as they were in 2020. And so in places like Arizona, the total ban – and I don’t make predictions ever – I do think it is going to turn out young people, especially young women.”

The Biden campaign has released two abortion-focused ads this week, including one that features a Texas woman who was denied an abortion after her water broke too early in pregnancy. (She ended up in the ICU.) Indivisible, a national grassroots organization with a local presence in states across the country, said volunteer sign-ups to knock on doors in Arizona spiked 50% following the state supreme court’s ruling. Its members in Arizona are helping to organize rallies in support of reproductive rights as well as events to collect signatures for the ballot measure.

When Roe fell, abortion rights’ grip on voters was far from guaranteed. Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans’ longtime leader and an architect of the conservative supreme court majority that overturned Roe, brushed off outrage over its demise as “a wash” in federal elections. Although most Americans support some degree of access to the procedure, anti-abortion voters were more likely to say the issue was important to their vote than pro-abortion rights voters.

The fall of Roe changed that. Anger over Roe was credited with halting Republicans’ much-promised “red wave” in the 2022 midterm elections, while pro-abortion rights ballot measures triumphed, even in crimson states such as Kansas and Kentucky. Last year, when Virginia Republicans tried retake control of the state legislature by championing a “compromise” 15 week-ban, they failed. Democrats now control both chambers in the state.

“When Republicans offer compromises, I think a lot of voters are inclined not to see those as what the Republican party really wants long-term but what the Republican party thinks is necessary to settle for in the short term,” said Mary Ziegler, a University of California at Davis School of Law professor who studies the legal history of reproduction. “They know that Republicans are aligned with the pro-life movement and the pro-life movement wants fetal personhood and a ban at fertilization.”

In the hours after the Arizona decision, several Republican state lawmakers and candidates with long records of opposing abortion rushed to denounce the near-total ban (which has not yet taken effect). The Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake, who once called abortion the “ultimate sin” and said Arizona’s impending near-total abortion ban was “a great law”, attempted to clarify her position on the issue in a meandering, five-minute-plus video. The ban she once favored – which passed in 1864, before Arizona even became a state or women gained the right to vote – is now “out of line with where the people of this state are”, Lake said.

“The issue is less about banning abortion and more about saving babies,” she said, as instrumental music swelled against images of pregnant women and pregnancy tests. She repeatedly stressed the importance of “choice” – language associated with people who support abortion rights – while simultaneously invoking the value of “life”.

Lake also emphasized that she “agrees with President Trump” on abortion. Over the course of his campaign, Trump has alternated between taking credit for overturning Roe – since he appointed three of the justices who ruled to do so – toying with the idea of a national ban, and insisting that states can decide their own abortion laws, as he did in a video this week.

Related: Florida just crushed abortion rights. But it also created a tool to fight back | Moira Donegan

In that video, released on Monday, Trump declined to endorse a federal ban on the procedure, after months of teasing his support. On Wednesday, Trump criticized the Arizona law and predicted that state lawmakers would “bring it back into reason”. Florida’s six-week ban, he suggested, was “probably, maybe going to change”. He reiterated his criticism on Friday, posting on his social media platform that the Arizona supreme court went “too far” in upholding an “inappropriate law from 1864” and calling on the Republican-led state legislature to “ACT IMMEDIATELY” to remedy the decision. “We must ideally have the three Exceptions for Rape, Incest, and Life of the Mother,” he wrote. (The 1864 ban only includes an exception to save the life of the pregnant person.)

“He’s simply trying to have it, I think, both ways,” Ziegler said of Trump.

Come November, Democrats are counting on the real-world consequences of the bans overriding other concerns. “The economy is still important. Immigration is still important, but this is immediate,” said Stacy Pearson, an Arizona-based Democratic strategist.

“A woman just wants to be in her OB-GYN’s office, having a conversation with her doctor about her medical care without concerns about whether or not old white men in cowboy hats were right in 1864,” Pearson added. “It’s nuts.”

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