Midterm results reflect growing range of pro-choice voters

After a series of wins in November’s midterms, abortion rights groups are looking for new ways forward in state legislatures while some Republican strategists say the GOP should move away from supporting strict prohibitions. 

Mike Simmons/Tulsa World/AP
Protesters rally against the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Emboldened by the results of November's midterms, abortion rights supporters say they are preparing for fights in state legislatures and pivotal elections to come.

Emboldened by the results of November’s midterms, abortion rights supporters say they are preparing for even bigger fights in state legislatures and pivotal elections to come, including 2024 races for Congress and president.

Victories for abortion rights ballot measures and candidates who support abortion provided a roadmap for how to win future campaigns, Democrats and leaders of several organizations say. Mobilization efforts brought together women of different races, ages, and ideologies who disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion, forming more diverse and larger coalitions.

The election also changed the way people talk about abortion, they say. Long seen as a polarizing issue Democrats were advised to pivot away from, it’s now considered a fundamental topic that must be addressed – and one that will help them win.

“We think, based on the enthusiasm and what we saw on our exit polling and in the election results, that this is an enduring issue,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. The group, along with Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s List, committed $150 million to the 2022 election.

“We got very, very far. But we could do a lot more and we’ll have to build toward that for 2024,” she said.

Heading into the November election, skeptics – including some within the Democratic Party – believed the Supreme Court’s June ruling overturning Roe v. Wade had faded as a motivator for voters, overtaken by concerns about inflation, crime, or President Joe Biden’s unpopularity.

But in the first nationwide election since the ruling, voters protected abortion rights via ballot measures in five states. Democrats performed better than anticipated, keeping control of the Senate and winning races for governor and other top statewide offices, and among the biggest winners were Democratic candidates who made preserving abortion rights a centerpiece of their campaigns.

VoteCast, a broad survey of the midterm electorate, found 7 in 10 voters said the high court’s ruling on abortion rights was an important factor in their midterm decisions. VoteCast also showed the decision was broadly unpopular. About 6 in 10 say they are angry or dissatisfied by it. And roughly 6 in 10 say they favor a law guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide.

“The election showed how motivating this is for people and I don’t think that is going away any time soon,” Jen Klein, the Biden administration’s Gender Policy Council director, said of abortion rights.

A key takeaway for supporters of abortion rights was that voters care about, and vote based on, more than a single issue. And for many women, reproductive rights is an economic issue, activists said.

House Democrats, who lost the majority but held more seats than expected to give the GOP a narrow advantage, mentioned abortion in 51% of the TV and radio ads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran in its most competitive districts, according to a post-election DCCC memo. The economy, extremism, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol also were mentioned, though less often, in DCCC ads. 

“There were a lot of skeptics, a lot of pundits saying we’re going to lose. They said abortion was polarizing, don’t talk about it, it’s not going to mobilize women,” recalled Amanda Brown Lierman, executive director of Supermajority, a multiracial, progressive organization formed after Donald Trump’s 2016 election to organize women and turn out the vote. “They could not have been more wrong. You now have an electorate that feels powerful.”

With near-total bans on abortion in place in over a dozen states, abortion-rights groups expect many of their next efforts will be in state legislatures, where Republicans continue to push for restrictions. They also are active in the runoff for U.S. Senate in Georgia between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and GOP football legend Herschel Walker.

Other next tests include a spring election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court that could shift the balance of the court in a state where abortion is banned, and the November 2023 governor’s race in Kentucky. Several Republicans are vying to challenge Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who supports abortion rights, in a conservative-leaning state where voters in November rejected a Republican-backed ballot measure aimed at denying any constitutional protections for abortion.

Then will come 2024, when the nation will choose a president and which party controls Congress.

Abortion opponents, meanwhile, also are looking at what worked – and what didn’t – in the midterms, and debating their strategy going forward.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, argued that to the extent abortion rights opponents lost, it was more a sign of how advertising money was spent than the direction the country is moving on the issue in light of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Democrats, notably vulnerable incumbents in competitive U.S. House races, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising pointing to their Republican opponents’ strict opposition to abortion rights. Meanwhile, Republican campaigns and related groups spent a fraction on abortion-specific messaging, allowing attacks – at times misrepresentations of GOP positions and records – to receive little or no response.

“The lesson I hope is learned – some lessons are hard ones – is that that doesn’t happen again,” Ms. Dannenfelser said. “Our goal is for there to be a lessons-learned lightbulb moment, and that there is a shift from the ostrich strategy of putting your head in the sand.”

The money bought what Ms. Dannenfelser called “unanswered lies.”

For example, a national Democratic House campaign group aired ads to help two-term Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, stating her Republican challenger Tyler Kistner supported banning abortion without exceptions for women who become pregnant as the result of rape or incest. That is despite Mr. Kistner stating he supported such exceptions in June.

Mr. Kistner’s campaign aides protested during press interviews during the campaign. But neither Mr. Kistner nor Republican groups aired ads responding. Still, Mr. Kistner, who ran unsuccessfully against Ms. Craig in 2020, made no mention of his abortion position on his campaign website this year, unlike two years ago.

“When party committees and their leaders are saying, ‘No matter what they say, don’t talk about abortion,’ then the lies stick,” Ms. Dannenfelser said.

With a divided Congress, the focus for Ms. Dannenfelser’s group shifts to closely evaluating Republican candidates for president, she said. That means sorting out of the field candidates who see no federal role to restrict abortion, she said.

“The one thing that is unacceptable is the idea that they have no job to do if they are elected,” she said.

Other Republicans say the lesson may be that the GOP should move away from supporting strict prohibitions. They point to elections like one this summer in conservative Kansas, where voters overwhelmingly supported abortion rights.

“I think there are quiet conversations about whether the party at a national level should be paying careful attention about what happened for instance in a state like Kansas,” said Jennifer Young, a Republican health care lobbyist.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP reporters Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Colleen Long and Amanda Seitz in Washington contributed to this report.

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