Channeling abortion outrage, Democratic women push for upsets in Senate elections

MANCHESTER – Heading into the midterm elections, the Supreme Court decision on abortion rights is top of mind for Lisa Ciacia, a 59-year-old quality manager from Nashua, a city in southern New Hampshire.

Inflation comes and goes, said Ciacia. “We’ve been here before. Abortion is a bigger issue.”

For her it’s not about whether the candidate is a Democrat or a Republican, but about people being allowed to make their own decisions.

“If you're not for allowing someone to make their own decisions, that ends it for me,” said Ciacia, a Democratic-leaning independent who said she is inclined to vote for New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan.

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Hassan is part of a contingent of Democratic women attempting to ride a post-Dobbs wave of public outrage back to the U.S. Senate, where abortion rights have become a fault line. Democratic women candidates have leaned in on abortion, holding events that are focused on reproductive rights and highlighting their support for federal legislation that protects access.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.

The momentum generated by the defeat of an anti-abortion ballot measure this summer in Kansas, the potential for new federal restrictions in a Republican-run Congress and the implementation of state laws curtailing abortion access have galvanized women to vote in the midterms, abortion rights advocates say, and created an environment that is ripe for candidates who are campaigning on their support for reproductive rights to upset expectations this fall.

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“I was just home for the last couple of weeks and everywhere I went Nevadans approached me about their concerns about the repeal of Roe vs. Wade and that was both women and men, so it is an issue that people who are in Nevada are rightfully concerned about,” Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto told USA TODAY.

Midterm elections generally generate lower turnout and less voter enthusiasm than years when presidential contests are held, but with women infuriated by the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats say they see the makings for a tectonic shift in voting patterns in both traditional and non-traditional battleground states.

“The referendum in Kansas put an end to this so-called noise that only blue states care about the freedom to choose,” said Donna Brazile, a former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee and presidential campaign manager to Al Gore.

In nearly half of states with Senate races on the ballot this year, Democrats have put forward women candidates, including incumbent Sens. Cortez Masto, whose race is rated a toss-up by the Center for Politics at UVA, and Hassan, whose seat leans Democratic. Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois are also on the ballot, and they are expected to be easily reelected.

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“It's impossible to overstate how much the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe has completely upended every political prediction for this election,” said Cecile Richards, a former Planned Parenthood president who now co-chairs the liberal political group American Bridge. “For folks who were unsure about whether this issue would resonate, it clearly has. And every single bit of data that we're seeing just confirms this and that it's not going away.”

Abortion-rights march on College Avenue on June 24, 2022, in Appleton, Wis.

Women competing for the Senate in states currently represented by Republicans say abortion rights are a major issue in their races also.

“In the very same way that you saw the marching in Washington at the announcement of the Dobbs decision, you've seen the same sense of outrage and engagement here in North Carolina in even the smallest communities,” former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley said.

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Beasley, who is competing against GOP Rep. Ted Budd to replace retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr, said the issue “transcends party affiliation" and that people "feel the sense of urgency around this election, and they understand that this is not the time to be on the sidelines.”

North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley.

Missouri beer heiress Trudy Busch Valentine centered her experience as a former nurse, saying, “There are complications in pregnancy. I'm a nurse. I know these things are happening. I think the decision is totally between a woman and her doctor. It's deeply personal.”

Busch Valentine welcomed the defeat of the Kansas measure and said that neighboring Missouri, a traditionally Republican state where she faces an uphill battle against state attorney general Eric Schmitt in November, could also see a record turnout of young women voters in the election.

“I think independents and mainstream Republicans will be able to vote for me because of this issue,” she said.

Economy still a concern

In interviews, Democratic women candidates expressed optimism that frustration over reproductive rights would help them prevail over their Republican competitors – many of whom are men – but they stressed that concerns about economic conditions are heavily shaping voters’ views, too.

“Voters here in New Hampshire, and I suspect all across the country deal with all of these issues at the same time,” said Hassan, whose Republican competitor will be decided in Tuesday’s primary.

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“They are wondering how they're going to afford prescription drugs. They're looking at high energy costs. They're looking at the cost of gas at the pump. They are also, at the same time, really worried about the fact that half the population doesn't have the same freedom that it had before the Dobbs decision in June,” Hassan said after a reproductive rights event in Concord, New Hampshire.

In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 34% of all respondents said they were more likely to vote because the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, compared with the 28% who said they felt that way about inflation and rising prices. Democrats were heavily viewed, 48%-27%, as best able to handle abortion policy.

Voters gave Republicans a slight advantage on plans to make life easier for them economically and reduce the deficit and a 12-point advantage on lowering inflation.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-FL).

Florida Rep. Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, told USA TODAY she is not looking for the issue of abortion to propel her to victory in her race.

“It is not because of a political strategy, but because I hear about it from the voters every place I go,” Demings said of her focus on the issue.

She released an ad last week contrasting her support for abortion rights with the views of her opponent, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio – whose campaign said in response that the senator is “unequivocally pro-life.”

Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said her organization is encouraging its endorsed candidates to “full-throatedly lead on the issue” with data showing that most Americans disapprove of the Supreme Court’s decision and oppose abortion bans.

But Timmaraju warned enthusiasm doesn’t translate over to candidates “unless candidates really do a good job of clearly making the connection.”

Surge in Women Voters

States that have Senate races on the ballot this fall have seen a double-digit surge in new women voters compared to new male voters since the Supreme Court released its June 24 decision in Dobbs, including in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Alaska and Colorado, according to data provided to USA TODAY by Democratic political data firm TargetSmart.

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In Kansas, where Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is competing for reelection against state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the firm measured a 40% gender gap among new registrants. The group found the gender gap also increased by sizable single-digits in battleground states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida.

“It's clear that women voters in particular understand that control of Congress could determine whether or not there is a national ban on abortion,” Richards said. “That's really important because, of course, you can care about an issue but if you don't think it is affected by an election, it's not a motivating factor.”

Student canvassers from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America go door to door in Olathe, Kansas, on July 8, 2022, to talk to prospective voters about a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, acknowledged that there is enthusiasm in this election among pro-abortion rights voters but emphasized that there is also excitement among conservatives who have been waiting for decades for the Supreme Court to strike down Roe.

“I would be committing political malpractice to say that there is not intensity on the pro-abortion side. Of course there is,” Dannenfelser said. “But there's also intensity on our side. We've been waiting for this for 50 years to be able to pass any pro-life protection.”

Dannenfelser argued that in races pro-abortion candidates have won, their opponents haven’t pushed them hard enough so articulate the extent to which they support abortions.

“They want every abortion to be preserved, they’re gonna lose all over the place if everyone is very clear on that,” she said.

She argued that in the long term, Democrats’ lack of nuance in their position will benefit the anti-abortion movement.

If a surge in support is coming for Democratic women as a result of Dobbs, it is not showing up in individual Senate candidates’ polling numbers in state-specific surveys, argued National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Chris Hartline.

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Abortion rights activists said that while women can speak more directly to the issue, they have not seen specific evidence that would suggest the abortion rights fight is resonating more deeply in states with women candidates. They noted that the issue helped Democrat Pat Ryan, a man, win a New York special election in August.

What they do expect to be a difference maker is the degree to which female candidates are campaigning on their support to abortion access and drawing a vigorous contrast between their views and those of their Republican opponents.

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“I think women candidates can speak specifically to why it is absolutely no business of the government to get in between women and our doctors and particularly on the issue of pregnancy and when to, whether to have a family,” said Richards.

Voters are “mad as hell” in New Hampshire, said EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler, and it is “possible” women will show up to the polls on Election Day in droves.

“But no one talked about it in isolation,” Butler said after a trip to the state for Hassan’s reproductive rights event. “It is very much top of mind, and there are other things that are top of mind as well.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democratic women strive to channel abortion outrage into Senate wins