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Abortion Rights Are Reshaping American Politics

In June, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and the court’s ultra-conservative majority wrote that they were sending the issue of abortion back to the voters. The voters are displeased.

The midterm election results look like a striking rebuke of the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and the wave of near-total abortion bans that followed it.

Results are still pending in some key states like Arizona, but Democrats won many contests that will shape abortion access for the next few years — and in some cases, much longer. Abortion-rights supporters managed to enshrine the right to abortion in three state constitutions, including the crucial state of Michigan, where a near-total ban on abortion from 1931 has been tangled up in court battles for months. And supporters notched another consequential win in Kentucky, where a majority of the state’s voters opposed a ballot measure that would have explicitly clarified that abortion rights was not protected under the state constitution.

These are significant victories for Democrats and abortion-rights supporters, particularly as Democrats faced significant headwinds on other topics important to Americans. That success almost certainly means abortion will remain a defining political issue as the 2024 presidential race looms on the horizon. There will be plenty of opportunities for Democrats to push their message: Abortion-rights activists now have momentum to push for ballot measures like the one that passed in Michigan, perhaps in states with active or pending bans like Ohio, Oklahoma and Missouri. And candidates may see this week’s results as evidence they need to talk more about abortion than they may have otherwise.

In other words, the unpopularity of the Supreme Court’s decision isn’t just registering in polls – it’s also reshaping the country’s political landscape.

Abortion-rights activists won on key ballot measures

The timing of the Supreme Court’s decision, just months before the midterm elections, didn’t leave much time for abortion-rights supporters to get measures on the ballot that would allow voters to weigh in directly on whether abortion should remain legal in their state. But abortion did make it to the ballot in five states – Michigan, Vermont, California, Kentucky and Montana – and although we don’t have final results everywhere, abortion-rights supporters appear poised to sweep the board.

By far the most important of these ballot measures was in Michigan, where a 1931 abortion ban has been snarled in litigation since before the Dobbs decision. Now the fate of the ban is moot after a decisive majority of Michigan voters cast their ballots in favor of an amendment establishing the right to reproductive freedom under the state constitution. The vote was an important bellwether because it was the first attempt to affirmatively enshrine abortion rights in a state constitution in a swing state where the status of abortion was genuinely uncertain. (Vermont and California also approved similar measures on Tuesday, but their blue hue made the outcome of those amendments considerably less suspenseful.) Abortion-rights supporters were already thinking about pursuing similar measures in a number of other states – those efforts are likely to get a lot more money and attention.

Abortion-rights supporters also defeated a Kentucky ballot measure stating that there is no right to abortion under the state constitution. That outcome might seem surprising, given that Kentuckians are solidly opposed to legal abortion in all or most cases, but it’s actually pretty much in line with what a New York Times analysis estimated after Kansas voters rejected a similar measure during the primary in August. Kentucky is redder than Kansas, so this vote was narrower, but the result underscores the fact that even some voters who are opposed to abortion in many cases are unhappy with the extreme turn that abortion policy has taken. In Kentucky, for instance, abortion is currently banned with very few exceptions – and according to polling by Civiqs, only 13 percent of Kentucky’s registered voters want abortion to be illegal in all circumstances. The abortion-rights side also substantially outraised anti-abortion advocates in the lead-up to the midterms, so that spending advantage may have helped too. The ballot measure’s defeat won’t immediately change the status quo — abortion will remain banned in Kentucky — but it does mean that a legal challenge to the ban in state court will proceed.

That said, the results in Kentucky are also a sign that opposition to Republicans’ extreme position on abortion does not automatically translate into support for Democrats. The “no” vote on the ballot measure (which, confusingly, corresponds with the pro-abortion rights stance) is currently running 14 percentage points ahead of Democratic Senate candidate Charles Booker, who lost decisively to Republican incumbent Sen. Rand Paul. So turning the general air of displeasure about extreme abortion bans into electoral victories could be tricky for Democrats in red states like Kentucky. Many anti-abortion candidates were also elected in races across the country last night, too — so simply prioritizing abortion doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Democrats.

Democratic victories will protect abortion access in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and other states

In key purple states, though, abortion rights seem to have lifted Democratic candidates, and although some races are still outstanding, Democrats have already won most of the state-level races that will shape abortion access going forward. In Pennsylvania, where Republican legislators were making noises about stricter abortion bans, Democrat Josh Shapiro won the governor’s race handily, defeating an opponent who was one of the most ardent anti-abortion advocates in the statehouse. Regardless of what happens in the Pennsylvania General Assembly — which, in a surprising turn of events, Democrats may also have a shot at winning — Shapiro has promised to veto any new abortion restrictions, which means that abortion will remain legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy (with some restrictions, like waiting periods) in Pennsylvania for the foreseeable future.

Democrats also managed to stave off a Republican supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly — a down-ballot victory that will have big implications for the thousands of women who already appear to be traveling to North Carolina for abortions. The governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, is a Democrat, so anti-abortion Republicans were hoping for a veto-proof majority that would allow them to pass a stricter abortion ban than the state’s current 20-week limitation. But that didn’t happen, and North Carolina will likely continue to accommodate thousands of out-of-state abortion patients from across the South as a result.

In addition to abortion-rights advocates’ victory on the ballot measure in Michigan, incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also won reelection, and abortion rights were clearly a factor. Whitmer made abortion rights a defining issue for her candidacy, and it paid off. According to the exit polls conducted in Michigan (which, like any other poll, are subject to error), a whopping 45 percent of Michigan voters said that abortion was the top issue driving their vote – 18 percentage points higher than the number for exit polls conducted in 10 other states and Michigan (27 percent). That spike is almost certainly because abortion was actually on the ballot in Michigan, but the result will likely embolden Democrats who are thinking about similar ballot measures in their states. 

Finally, in Wisconsin, a challenge to the state’s 19th-century abortion ban will live on, since Democrat Tony Evers won his reelection bid for governor, as did the incumbent Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul. The ban is currently active in Wisconsin, which means it’s basically impossible to get a legal abortion in the state, but Evers and Kaul filed a lawsuit over the summer challenging the ban, which is moving forward in the courts. Wisconsin Republicans also failed to win a legislative supermajority that would have allowed them to override Evers’s veto and pass a newer abortion ban with a better chance of surviving a court challenge. Evers’s victory is still not a guarantee that abortion will become legal in Wisconsin again — but it’s a live possibility, which would not be the case if he had lost.

Check out our live analysis of the 2022 midterm election.

Abortion will continue to be a defining issue for Democrats

Add all those contests up and it’s clear the issue of abortion rights isn’t going away. Some Democrats who leaned heavily into abortion, despite the prevailing economic winds, will likely feel vindicated by last night’s results. It’s still not entirely clear whether abortion was a decisive issue in states where access to the procedure is protected — like Oregon and Nevada — but the issue clearly did not fade into the background, despite predictions to the contrary.

How did Democrats manage to defy those expectations? We don’t know yet. But it seems like abortion access may be mobilizing some groups that the Democrats have long struggled to turn out reliably, like young voters. There were signs going into the election that young women were particularly upset by the Supreme Court’s ruling, and that’s reinforced by the exit polls, which found1 that abortion was the top issue for 44 percent of voters under the age of 30 — far more than the share that picked inflation. Women were also more likely than men to say that abortion was their top issue in the exit polls (33 percent vs. 22 percent), but the gap wasn’t huge, and it could be at least partially explained by the fact that women are more likely to vote for Democrats. We’ll have to wait until we get more reliable turnout numbers to dig into this further — but for now it’s clear that abortion is motivating many Democratic voters, despite a sour economy and general discontent with the state of the country. Going into 2024, we will likely see more Democratic primary candidates running on the issue of abortion, as many of this year’s primaries were over by the time the Dobbs decision came out.

And what about Republicans? Last night’s results were a fairly clear sign that Americans are not happy with the extreme stance on abortion that many Republicans have taken — which could affect what happens in state legislatures over the coming months. Republican politicians in states like Ohio, Nebraska and Virginia are hoping to pass or retain restrictive abortion bans, but the results of the midterms could lead to more standoffs like the one we saw in South Carolina earlier this year, where Republican legislators split on the exceptions that were included in a proposed abortion ban, and ultimately ended up not passing anything. (They might end up coming to a deal in the next few days, but time is running out.) New abortion bans could give Democrats more ammunition heading into the next election cycle, but anti-abortion advocates will likely push for them anyway, putting some Republican legislators in a bind.

And then there’s the question of what national Republicans will do. Some Republican candidates tried to moderate their stance on abortion as it became clear that the Dobbs decision was backfiring on them, proposing 15-week abortion bans rather than the much stricter restrictions that had gone into effect in other states. Now that it’s even more clear that abortion bans are weighing down Republicans in some states, we could see that trend continue. (Although, because the party has gotten more extreme on the issue of abortion over the past decade, some Republicans will almost certainly continue to support strict bans.)

We’ll keep looking into how abortion shaped the results of the midterms in the coming days. But for now, it’s clear that the Dobbs decision did turn abortion into one of the most salient issues in the country — which means you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it as the 2024 presidential campaign creaks into gear.


American turning point: Abortion rights on the ballot

Footnotes

  1. In the states where they were conducted.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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