How Democrats used the abortion debate to stem the red tide
For months, the midterm elections appeared to be a battle over rising prices, public safety concerns and fears of a looming recession.
But another driving issue proved almost as powerful for voters: abortion rights.
In the first major election since the Supreme Court overturned a case that secured federal abortion rights for nearly half a century, abortion rights made a breakthrough, lifting Democrats to victory in Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan and New Mexico.
Voters in three states – California, Vermont and Michigan – decided to protect abortion rights in their state constitutions. In a fourth, Kentucky, a conservative bastion and the home of Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, voters rejected the amendment saying their constitution does not grant the right to an abortion.
For decades, abortion politics has worked a certain way, rallying the Republican base and abortion opponents with far greater intensity than abortion rights supporters. Conservative evangelicals and Catholics often voted for abortion or the future of the Supreme Court, even if it meant compromising other priorities.
But the reversal of Roe v. Wade seems to have flipped the script. In the months since the June decision, Democrats have seized on the issue, linking abortion to everyday family finances and health care and tapping into voters’ fears of the rise of far-right Republicans. They have woven the issue into broader Democratic messaging that has framed the election as a referendum on what they describe as “extreme” Republican views rather than President Biden and Democratic control in Washington.
“It was all connected,” Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado and longtime head of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, said Wednesday morning. “It wasn’t like, here’s our wedge problem — abortion. People thought, ‘I’m worried about the economy. I’m worried about taking away freedoms,’ and they were worried about democracy.”
The full impact of the message remains to be seen. House and Senate races in the West remained tied on Wednesday as vote counting continued and control of the House and Senate still hung in the balance.
But the results so far signal the struggle ahead for Republicans, who leave this election divided on an issue that has long been a bedrock for the party. The party’s socially conservative wing remains determined to advance its cause, but they now face a Republican establishment that is more inclined to view the debate over abortion restrictions as a political liability.
“The pro-life movement has to do better. The political element of the pro-life movement must be strengthened,” said Frank Cannon, longtime political strategist for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “Without that, we’re going to be in trouble.”
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Much remains uncertain. For the second election day in a row, election night ended without a clear winner. Nate Cohn, The Times’ chief political analyst, looks at the state of races for the House and Senate, and if we could know the outcome:
In Michigan, abortion rights led the party to victory in both houses of the legislature and re-elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, giving Democrats the trifecta of power in the state for the first time in 40 years. In Pennsylvania, the party won the race for the Senate and the governor’s office.
Exit polls by television networks and Edison Research showed that in Pennsylvania, abortion has overtaken the economy as the top issue on voters’ minds, and in Michigan, nearly half of all voters said abortion is their top issue.
Those victories followed a tsunami of advertising across the country. In total, Democrats have spent nearly half a billion dollars on ads mentioning abortion, more than double what they spent on the next closest topic, crime, according to AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm.
As the votes were counted, some Republicans acknowledged the damage the issue had done to their chances.
“If we lost because of abortion, an issue that wasn’t on the ballot, if we lost because I’m pro-life, because I believe that every life has dignity, I’m fine with that,” he said Matt Birk, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Minnesota who lost on Tuesday, after being attacked for comments over the summer about abortion and rape.
Republicans have fought for decades to overturn Roe, but they never had to count on what would happen if they actually did. Some in the party immediately recognized the moment of victory as a moment of vulnerability.
When Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, called to thank former President Donald J. Trump for the three Supreme Court justices shortly after the ruling, he gave her a warning: “Pay attention, this could affect halftime,” recalled Mr. . Trump says.
Shortly after the decision in June, Democratic Party committees embarked on detailed public opinion polls, hoping to determine exactly which messages worked best. There was a clear takeaway: The strongest message for Democrats was to keep the conversation going by broadly telling Republicans to support a national abortion ban and avoiding debating the details of gestational week limits.
“Debate week is not what we want to be,” said Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster who conducted some of the research. “People are terrible at math and terrible at biology.”
Republican candidates have found their strategy: delete the most politically harmful views and try to turn the situation around. In strategy memos and private meetings, the party has urged candidates to paint Democrats as extremists, claims supported by their opponents “abortion until birth.”
“Running away from problems is a proven way to get lost. Pro-life candidates who want a chance to win must go on the offensive and expose their opponents as holding extreme views,” the RNC advises in the memo.
Outside of Washington, states are thrown into a new barrage of laws and consequences for families, and the issue has only gained momentum with Democratic voters. Debates on abortion care and exemptions for rape and incest played out in state legislatures.
In July, Gallup registered that abortion is considered the most important problem facing the country for the majority of those surveyed since the organization began asking the question in 1984.
In August, even Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest reproductive rights organization, was taken aback by the scale of the Kansas referendum victory, the first major vote to test the power of abortion policy since the ruling. The group’s internal poll showed a close race, but voters rejected an amendment to remove protections for abortion rights from their state constitution by 18 points — increasing the margin not only in suburban areas but also in rural districts.
Republicans have also begun to shift, hoping to muddy the waters around their positions to try to play down the power of the issue.
Some candidates have deleted their positions from their websites.
Social conservatives began to fear losing political influence in the party. They redoubled their efforts in the Senate, urging Republicans to sponsor a 15-week abortion ban. Polls show that public opinion declines in support of abortion rights at the end of the first trimester.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced the proposal in September, the backlash was immediate. It was clear that Senate leadership was not interested in rallying members behind a national ban.
When Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, reached out to Mr. McConnell, hoping to get a meeting to promote the ban, the response was curt. A text from a McConnell aide said the minority leader would be “too busy” to meet for “many weeks,” until after the election, she said.
“It was obvious that they hoped that if the word was never mentioned, there would be no problem,” she said. “I wanted to pick up my coffee table and throw it out the window of my 12-story building.”
By mid-October, facing persistently high inflation and a falling stock market, abortion began to slide down the list of voters’ concerns. The shift was most noticeable among a key demographic: women who identified as independent voters.
Some Democrats have begun de-emphasizing abortion in favor of labeling Republicans “economic extremists” or attacking them for wanting to defund programs like Social Security or Medicare. Senior liberals, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, have begun openly calling on Democrats to move away from their focus on abortion in favor of a more focused economic message.
Other members argued that the shock had worn off for some voters, but anger remained. A number of Democrats and activists argued that voters linked abortion to economic issues because they understood the impact of having a child on women’s ability to work, family finances and health care.
“I did a pro-choice ad,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who was re-elected in her suburban Michigan by a six-point margin. “I never thought I’d do it in a life in a pro-life neighborhood. But I did one ad on choice – but I did four on the economy.”
As the results continued to roll in on Wednesday, social conservatives tried to find a silver lining. They recorded victories for candidates who support 15-week bans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina, who won his Senate race, and JD Vance of Ohio, the senator-elect.
They also made it clear that these temporary mandates were the opening salvo in a new war – both against Democrats and within their own party.
“There’s no way anyone can run in 2024 who’s not in favor of a federal cap,” Mr. Cannon said. “So the Republican messaging on this is going to have to change.”
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