In the weeks leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, many political observers presumed that Democrats were due for a historic shellacking. Instead, they gained a seat in the Senate and only narrowly lost the House. Abortion rights advocates point to a single event as the source of this relative victory: the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June.
“When abortion is on the ballot, reproductive freedom wins,” argued Jenny Lawson, the vice president of organizing and engagement campaigns at Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Numbers tell the story. The Dobbs decision overturning the federal right to an abortion was widely opposed by the public, with 57 percent of adults disapproving of the decision, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Sixty-two percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Moreover, nearly four in 10 voters said that the Supreme Court decision had a major impact on their decision of whether to vote, according to results from KFF/AP VoteCast exit polling. Five statewide ballot measures on abortion, including in the red states of Montana and Kentucky, resulted in favor of abortion rights. (It’s also worth noting that most Americans’ views of abortion are not black and white—the majority of Americans approve of some restrictions on abortion, according to Gallup.)
“Usually in a midterm election, only the people who are in the party that’s not in power, who tend to be angrier, turn out. In this midterm election, interestingly enough, people on both sides were angry,” Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden, told The New Republic in an interview on Wednesday. “You cannot overstate the importance of that, in terms of bringing home to voters the threat of extremism in this country; having a constitutional right taken away after almost 50 years.”
The question now is whether the passions that guided these voters can be maintained over the two-year period between now and the 2024 election. Even as the months creep by since the Dobbs decision, abortion rights supporters argue that it will remain a key issue going forward. A big reason is that the aftereffects of the Dobbs decision keep making the news, providing fodder for fresh reactions. On Wednesday, for example, Alabama’s attorney general’s office suggested that pregnant women could be prosecuted for taking abortion pills, and officials in red states are mulling methods of restricting access to abortion pills.
“This will remain an issue as Republicans continue to try and chip away at what rights we have,” said Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications at Emily’s List, an organization that helps Democratic women supportive of abortion rights get elected. “The Republican effort to undermine our rights has not gone away. And so voters’ attention on it and voters’ support for it also won’t.”
There is a broad consensus among advocates that abortion will continue to be an issue in future elections. And while all eyes may be on the 2024 federal elections, 2023 will also feature some significant contests that will put these theories to the test: an incumbent Democratic governor running for reelection in Kentucky, mayoral races in Chicago and Philadelphia, state legislature races in Virginia and New Jersey, and Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin. Abortion may play a particularly key role in Kentucky, where voters rejected an anti-abortion ballot measure in November and where the state’s Supreme Court is deliberating on the constitutionality of an abortion ban.
“Those are all very important state races that will have capacity to impact abortion coverage,” said Lawson, adding that the organization “anticipate[s] playing a role” in the Kentucky gubernatorial race in particular. She also highlighted that Democrats flipped a state Senate seat in a special election in Virginia this week; the Democratic candidate, Aaron Rouse, was credited by the local branch of Planned Parenthood for “unapologetically [making the] special election about protecting abortion rights.” And while it doesn’t change the balance of power in the legislature, Rouse could be the swing vote on abortion issues; not unrelatedly, the race was the most expensive in Virginia Senate history. “There is no doubt that voters care about abortion rights and that abortions will continue to be a driving issue on the campaign trail and beyond,” Lawson said.
Meanwhile, on a federal level, House Republicans made abortion a centerpiece of their federal agenda in their first week of business. On Wednesday, the House approved—almost entirely along party lines—a resolution condemning attacks on anti-abortion facilities and passed a separate bill penalizing doctors who refuse to care for an infant born alive after an abortion attempt. (Physicians and abortion rights supporters say that this latter bill is unnecessary, as a bipartisan bill passed in 2002 already guarantees full human rights for infants.) Neither measure will be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate, but they send a message as to the priorities of the new GOP majority in the House.
This message is not universally embraced by all Republicans. “We learned nothing from the midterms if this is how we’re going to operate in the first week,” GOP Representative Nancy Mace told reporters on Tuesday. “Millions of women across the board were angry over overturning Roe v. Wade.” Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican, also said that he did not anticipate further votes on anti-abortion bills in the future. “There’s a group of us that are going to make sure that we’re focusing on things that people care about, and why they elected this majority,” Fitzpatrick said. Mace and Fitzpatrick voted for both measures on Wednesday; the resolution also garnered three Democratic votes, and the “born alive” bill attracted one Democratic vote.
Former President Donald Trump also criticized Republicans for focusing on restricting abortion in the midterms, saying in a statement that the “abortion issue” was responsible for GOP losses. This comment rankled some anti-abortion groups, which have urged Republicans to support a national abortion ban and argued that holding firm on the issue will motivate base voters.
“The fault of midterm losses has ZERO to do [with] the pro-life cause & more to do with poor election strategies that the Republican Party has been employing for years,” Lila Rose, a prominent anti-abortion activist, tweeted in response. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an anti-abortion group, said in a statement responding to Trump’s comments that “the approach to winning on abortion” is to “state clearly the ambitious consensus pro-life position and contrast that with the extreme view of Democrat opponents.”
“The anti-choice activist groups out there are going to push Republicans into making their positions clear. We know what their positions are: They want to end abortion; they want to take away our rights,” argued Reynolds. So groups like Emily’s List will “make sure that voters are clear on who stands with them and who doesn’t”—that is to say, Republicans.
Congressional Democrats will also be quick to point out their opponents’ positions on abortion. In a statement, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Nebeyatt Betre argued that “voters sent a clear message in support of reproductive freedom” in the 2022 elections. “As Democrats fight to protect reproductive freedom, House Republicans are moving in lockstep to rip it away—voters will certainly have something to say in 2024 when they vote Democrats back into the majority.”
There is the possibility that abortion is also a motivating issue for abortion opponents, who, after all, were successful in their nearly 50-year movement to overturn Roe. A postelection memo by SBA Pro-Life America highlighted that several governors who had signed legislation restricting abortion sailed to reelection victory. However, polling has shown that Democrats were more motivated to vote by the Dobbs decision than Republicans in the run-up to the midterm elections.
“There is no doubt that voters care about abortion rights and that abortions will continue to be a driving issue on the campaign trail and beyond,” Lawson said.