A predicted ‘red wave’ crashed into wall of abortion rights support on Tuesday

A surge in turnout among people motivated by the erosion of abortion rights carried Democrats to victory in races for governor, Senate, attorney general and state legislatures — defying predictions that the issue had faded for voters in the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Tuesday’s results likely ensure that millions of people will be able to legally terminate a pregnancy going forward — and bolster progressives’ arguments that reproductive rights is a winning issue that Democrats and their allies should pursue aggressively in the years ahead.

“There are lessons here for 2024 that I hope the administration will take to heart,” said Morgan Hopkins, the leader of All* Above All, an abortion-rights advocacy group. “We showed up, especially young voters of color, in record numbers. Now, we need these elected officials to show up for us.”

The abortion-rights campaign also prevailed in ballot measure fights in swing states like Michigan and GOP strongholds like Kentucky, while candidates up and down the ballot in Pennsylvania benefited from voters concerned with preserving access.

Soaring inflation, which preelection polls showed was, by far, the most important issue for voters, just barely outpaced abortion in exit polls, 31 percent to 27 percent, according to the National Election Pool exit poll, conducted by Edison Research. And about 60 percent of voters said they were dissatisfied or angry with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to both that exit poll and AP Votecast.

Citing these results, abortion-rights advocates who have been frustrated with the Biden administration’s cautious response to the fall of Roe v. Wade wasted no time in pushing Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., and around the country to pursue bolder policies to protect the procedure going forward, arguing it’s not the political risk many believed it to be.

Some top Democrats rushed to echo that message Wednesday. Despite the likelihood of a divided government in Washington next year, assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) said it’s clear voters “want leaders who stand up for reproductive freedom and defend women’s rights — leaders who will not allow women to be sidelined in our economy or singled out as second-class citizens.”

Abortion’s impact was especially evident in two swing states — Pennsylvania and Michigan — where Democrats in tight races at all levels of government won following campaigns that contrasted their opponents’ anti-abortion views with pledges to defend the procedure.

Michigan Democrats, who campaigned on their opposition to the state’s 1931 near-total abortion ban and ran on newly drawn maps that made districts more competitive, flipped control of the state Legislature for the first time in decades.

And in Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman flipped a red Senate seat blue, 36 percent of voters said abortion was the most important issue to them, compared to 29 percent for inflation, according to the National Election Pool exit poll.

Abortion-rights supporters are also poised to sweep all six of the ballot measures before voters this year that will determine access to the procedure — fueling arguments that constitutional amendments present the best path for protecting abortion in a post-Roe world.

“It’s a repudiation of [Republicans’] extreme anti-choice agenda that is out of step with most voters’ values and beliefs,” said Rachel Sweet, the leader of the successful campaign to defeat an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in deep-red Kentucky. “While we may not all agree on abortion, we do agree that the government needs to stay out of our personal lives and that women, their families and their doctors are the ones who should be making these decisions, not politicians.”

Meanwhile, Tuesday night’s results left anti-abortion groups scrambling to explain what went wrong.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America argued on a call with reporters Wednesday morning that the group lost ballot initiative fights because of a flood of spending on the abortion rights side combined with stinginess from the GOP, accusing party committees and leaders for not giving more funding to fights in Kentucky and Michigan.

“We have a popular position. The biggest problem we have is a lack of leadership at the top,” said the group’s president Marjorie Dannenfelser, hitting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by name for failing to campaign for the anti-abortion ballot measure that failed in his home state of Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Governors Association spent $59 million this cycle on abortion messaging, compared to $36 million on “economic positives” and $21 million on education.

Though anti-abortion advocates insisted that Kansas’ decisive rejection of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in August was a fluke inspired by voter emotion and confusion in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, progressives passed measures in California, Vermont and Michigan to shore up legal protections for the procedure while defeating amendments that would have allowed lawmakers to impose more restrictions in Kentucky and Montana.

Particularly in Kentucky, an overwhelmingly conservative and religious state that reelected Sen. Rand Paul by a wide margin, the victory for the abortion-rights side shows the issue is resonating among Republican and independent voters as well as Democrats, and advocates are already looking at what states they want to target next.

Just 17 states have the ability to amend their state constitutions by citizen-led ballot initiatives, explained Kelly Hall, the director of the group Fairness Project that supported the abortion-rights campaigns as well as other progressive ballot measures this year.

Of that group of states, Hall said she’s eyeing the places where abortion rights are already greatly restricted — like the Dakotas, Arkansas, Arizona, Ohio and Missouri.

“Ballot measures are at their most powerful when there’s a large disconnect between the beliefs of most voters and those of their politicians,” she said. “And that’s evident all across the country.”

Kelly said she wonders whether fewer red state lawmakers try to put anti-abortion constitutional amendments before voters in the future.

“I’m hopeful conservative legislatures, after Kansas and Kentucky so resoundingly rejected the invitation to restrict abortion rights, will be dissuaded from that path,” she said.

Abortion-rights advocates also hailed the defeat of an initiative that would have raised the voter approval threshold for ballot measures in Arkansas to 60 percent. They feared the strategy could have been replicated in other states to prevent abortion-related measures and other progressive policies from passing.

“We have to defend direct democracy and the will of the people. We have to implement voter approved initiatives,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “We have the power to ensure that the will of the people prevails. Arkansas proved that.”

As they sifted through the midterms’ fallout, anti-abortion groups did not seem eager to put the issue to more statewide popular votes, with Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins calling it a “risky tool, often used to pump up voter anxiety to get out the vote.”

Conservative advocates were much more focused on candidates Wednesday morning, with Dannenfelser insisting that Republicans lost across the country because they tried to duck the abortion question rather than run on their desire to abolish the procedure. The group, which spent more than $78 million on the midterms, held up Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania as a prime example of what they called “the ostrich strategy.”

“We broke our backs to help him win, but he did a very poor job saying what he would do for the people of Pennsylvania on the pro-life front,” she complained, citing Oz’s refusal to answer whether he would vote for a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. He and other Republicans lost, she added, because they “hoped the issue would go away,” which turned out to be “political malpractice.”

In Wisconsin, however, abortion opponents argued that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ decisive reelection victory — which preserves the chance for abortion access to be restored in the state — shows they have more work to do to persuade younger voters on abortion.

“The number one thing that stood out to us is the urgent need for the pro-life movement to specifically message to younger generations,” Gracie Skogman, spokesperson for Wisconsin Right to Life, told POLITICO. “We had a historic amount of young people turning out to vote, and abortion was a driving factor for those young people. Unfortunately, for the pro-life movement, they don’t share our position on life.”

Still, anti-abortion advocates prevailed in important races in two swing states: Ohio and North Carolina. Not only did J.D. Vance and Ted Budd sail to victory in their Senate races, but Republicans also expanded their majority in the states’ legislatures and swept key state supreme court races — results that could impact current and future cases on access to abortion.

In Ohio, the three Republican Supreme Court candidates secured overwhelming victories against their Democratic opponents, preserving a GOP majority on the court as it’s set to hear a challenge to the state’s six-week abortion ban in the near future.

“It was a red tsunami in Ohio last night,” Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, told POLITICO. “There’s no crystal ball, but I hope and pray that with such a large majority that this new Ohio Supreme Court in 2023 would not determine that there’s a constitutional right to abortion in our state constitution.”

And in North Carolina, Republicans scored key wins in two Supreme Court races both pro- and anti-abortion-rights groups had made a top priority. Both states have partisan Supreme Court elections that legal observers believe played key roles in sweeping GOP justices to victory alongside the top-of-the-ticket races.

“These outcomes are all going to have tangible impacts on abortion access in these states in the near future,” said Douglas Keith, counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.

The GOP also picked up seats in North Carolina’s Legislature but Republicans fell one seat short of a supermajority that would have allowed them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetos and pass anti-abortion legislation next year.

“States like North Carolina are tough but we’re going to continue to make sure that we’re looking at those down-ticket wins in the legislature to really make sure that the state legislature represents the people,” said J.J. Straight, deputy director of the ACLU’s liberty division.

Abortion-rights advocates in those states argued those losses resulted from a lack of Democratic investment.

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, Lauren Blauvelt-Copelin, vice president of government affairs and public advocacy for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio, said reproductive rights advocates remain focused on bringing an abortion ballot measure directly to voters.

“We take this loss very seriously, and we’ll do everything we can to both understand it and make the adjustments that we need,” said Blauvelt-Copelin. “I wouldn’t say we’re more invigorated because we’ve been working on this strategy, and we know that it’s a win.”