In a normal midterms year, with the inflation rate at 8.2 percent, gas prices ticking up, and the president’s approval rating at 41 percent, a full-on trouncing of the party in power would seem almost inevitable. But 2022 was not a normal year. This election, there was a force at play that sapped the momentum of a brewing red wave: the end of nationwide legal abortion.
The humanitarian crisis brought on by the overturning of Roe v. Wade may be the main reason why Republicans did not sweep both chambers of Congress last night. In multiple exit polls, nearly as many voters cited abortion as their top issue as they did inflation. It was a marked shift from some pre-election surveys that showed abortion trailing as a deciding issue.
All across the country, amid skyrocketing costs of living and rampant dissatisfaction with Joe Biden’s job performance, the GOP underperformed expectations—even in jurisdictions where Republicans didn’t have the “candidate quality issues” (read: being insufferable weirdos) that plagued various Trump-endorsed recruits. Democrats didn’t win in these places because voters were stoked about the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, or because they were especially thrilled by a rousing vision of the future put forth by party leaders. They won in large part because, as a political issue, abortion motivates whichever party feels like it’s losing the battle.
While Roe stood, and protected the right to legal abortion in every state, right-leaning voters were often more likely to name abortion as a deciding factor in their vote. Now, it’s pro-choice voters who feel they have the most to lose.
And not just any pro-choice voters.
The effect of the Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which prompted more than a dozen states to ban abortion, appeared particularly pronounced in certain swing states where abortion is currently legal—places, in other words, where a shift in the balance of power could mean the end of abortion rights. According to one exit poll from ABC News, voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania were even more motivated by abortion than inflation. In Michigan, where the midterms ballot included a proposed amendment that would enshrine “reproductive freedom” in the state constitution—it passed—nearly half of voters said abortion was the most important issue determining their vote, compared to just 28 percent who named inflation.
Certainly, some of these abortion-motivated voters were anti-abortion conservatives. But not many. It’s still too early to make any definitive pronouncements, and the recent redistricting certainly contributed, but it seems that having abortion on the ballot in Michigan helped bring out enough angry left-leaning voters to give Democrats full control of the state government—the governor’s office and both legislative chambers—for the first time in 40 years. Voters in Vermont and California also easily approved amendments that will enumerate the right to reproductive autonomy in their respective state constitutions.
But the right to abortion also has cross-party appeal. On Wednesday morning, with about 85 percent of votes counted, the abortion-rights ballot measure in Michigan was outperforming reelected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by tens of thousands of votes. In Kentucky, voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have explicitly stated that there is no right to abortion in the state constitution. (Abortion is still illegal in Kentucky, but with the amendment defeated, it remains possible for a state court to find the total ban unconstitutional.) This wasn’t part of some freak blue wave in Kentucky: Republican Rand Paul easily won his Senate race, four out of five of the House seats went Republican, and both chambers of the state legislature stayed overwhelmingly red, too.
Kentucky wasn’t the only red state to directly repudiate the right wing on abortion. Montanans rejected a deceptive ballot initiative that would have required doctors to attempt to save the life of any “born-alive infant,” including “infants born during an attempted abortion.” Since Montana doctors are already prohibited by law from “purposely, knowingly, or negligently” causing the death of a viable premature infant, the measure was primarily put forth by the GOP to drive anti-abortion conservatives to the polls. Voters defeated it anyway.
The missing red wave—and the victory for abortion rights in every state that has put abortion on the ballot since Dobbs—should send a message to political leaders in both parties.
Will they listen? To the extent that the GOP is willing to modulate its strategy on abortion to align with popular opinion—likely a slim prospect, as party officials have spent decades taking more extreme positions than rank-and-file members on nearly every issue—it should consider backing away from attempts to instate a national abortion ban. The party clearly hoped that a promise to criminalize abortion nationwide would give right-leaning voters something to get excited about, dispelling any complacency brought on by the trashing of Roe in June. That didn’t happen. Instead, Republican candidates in all corners of the country were forced to stop talking so much about their anti-abortion views, and pro-choice fury outweighed the urge among voters to complain about gas prices and tell Biden how much they don’t like him.
The lesson for Democrats is a little more complicated. After decades of protecting anti-abortion party members; taking Roe for granted and declining to codify it when they had the chance; opposing abortion funding for low-income women; de-emphasizing court appointments while Republicans made them a priority; and speaking about abortion in mushy, euphemistic terms that fail to capture its essential role in women’s lives, Democrats have now, in some ways, benefited from their shortcomings on the issue. Republicans did most of the work to gin up pro-choice outrage. All Democrats had to do was pander to it.
That worked for this election, when the wound of Dobbs was still fresh. As years pass, and voters become used to entire swaths of the country requiring miscarrying patients to develop life-threatening infections before receiving care, the fire will begin to fade. The surprise success of Democrats in this election has papered over real, concerning weaknesses in party leadership and messaging that would have been more evident at the polls if not for the suffering Dobbs has wrought. Democrats will need to find new ways to keep abortion top of mind for voters—in a way they never managed to before Dobbs—if they hope to retain this momentum against abortion bans.
It won’t be easy. No matter how many angry voters cast their ballots against the anti-abortion GOP, they will not bring back Roe v. Wade, and the courts will let Republican majorities in state legislatures do just about whatever they want. If the Democratic Party continues doing what it has been doing, the best pro-choice voters can hope for is to mitigate the damage of the crackdowns happening in Republican-led states across the country. And that’s no good for the party’s future prospects: It is a lot easier for political leaders to show voters what they did, over the hypothetical terrible futures they have helped avert—especially on an issue like abortion, which will remain an abstract concern for many Americans who believe it does not affect them. “Help us keep doing good stuff!” is a more compelling message than “Help us try to keep things from getting worse!”
The fact is, no matter who ultimately controls Congress and the Senate, it will be hard for Democrats to make sweeping progress on abortion after this election. They must try anyway. They should take every opportunity to pin down Republicans on their extreme positions, introduce more abortion-rights ballot initiatives, take proactive steps to expand abortion access where it is legal, and align their messaging—no more squeamish, wishy-washy language—to build support for the issue. They should embrace supposedly extreme political tactics, like packing the courts and creating filibuster carve-outs for abortion legislation.
Easier said than done, right? Even if Democrats somehow maintain control of both chambers of Congress, they will still have to contend with lawmakers like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have kept the party from mounting a more aggressive response to Dobbs. But the party is in trouble if it can’t find more substantive ways to keep pro-choice hope alive, in addition to pro-choice anger. Democrats cannot lean on Republicans’ bad policy forever; they need to give voters something to vote for. They need to start treating the end of Roe like an emergency, an intolerable assault on human rights, because clearly, voters already know it is.