Democrats Embraced Abortion Rights Like Never Before — And It Paid Off

For decades, abortion has been a highly polarized issue that most politicians didn’t dare touch. How did full-throated support of abortion rights become a winning strategy?
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

On the Friday before this year’s midterm elections, Carl Forti, the political director of the Senate Leadership Fund, was describing what his group — a super PAC allied closely with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that spent more than a quarter-billion dollars on the midterms — had seen after the Supreme Court issued a seismic decision overturning the right to an abortion established by Roe v. Wade.

What they found, mostly, was increased motivation for partisan Democrats. They saw little impact among swing voters or devoted Republicans. But that motivation alone was enough to change the election, and turn the battle for control of the 50-50 Senate from a GOP slam dunk to a tossup.

“If they hadn’t been that motivated, there’d be no question about the majority because of how many seats we’d be winning,” Forti said.

A week later, abortion rights seems to have played an even larger role in the midterms than anticipated. Democrats turned in a better-than-expected performance, helped in part by strong performances in a host of states — including Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and New Hampshire — where the GOP seemed poised to sharply restrict or eliminate abortion rights.

Democrats fully embraced abortion rights this cycle, and subsequently defied historical trends indicating that a party presiding over record-high inflation should suffer a thumping at the polls — reshaping how abortion politics have played out for decades. And the problems for the GOP, a party long dedicated to curtailing reproductive rights, are not set to end anytime soon.

“I remember a time not too long ago when elected officials would say, ‘We can’t have these conversations around abortion. Just get us into office and when we’re there, we will do what we can to preserve access,’” Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood, told HuffPost on Wednesday.

“I remember a time not too long ago when elected officials would say, ‘We can’t have these conversations around abortion. Just get us into office and when we’re there we will do what we can to preserve access.’”

- Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood

Democrats did have a last-minute panic about the effectiveness of their strategy, but the overall picture is clear: The candidates who were outspoken about their pro-choice views, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Pennsylvania Sen.-elect John Fetterman, won in close races on Tuesday night.

In the five states where people were able to directly decide on reproductive rights, including two that are typically deep red, voters overwhelmingly chose to uphold abortion protections. And voters in purple states, like Wisconsin, North Carolina and New Mexico, showed up to the polls to hand Democrats critical victories in communities where anti-choice advocates are actively threatening abortion access.

“It was a really critical inflection point for us,” Christie Roberts, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe. “Pre-Dobbs decision, the Democratic base was not engaged. We were facing a real turnout challenge. Pretty quickly after, we saw renewed engagement from our base.”

“Turnout is motivated by anger, by rage, by a passion for something that’s being taken away,” she said. “The Dobbs decision shook our base awake to the real consequences of the election.”

Embracing Abortion As A Winning Issue

The Supreme Court’s decision to repeal 50 years of precedent undeniably had a massive impact on this week’s results. But how did such a polarizing issue, one that’s been deeply debated for decades, transform into such an effective political strategy? Despite long being the party associated with pro-choice views, Democrats have often waffled on abortion rights. There are still Democratic governors and House members who oppose abortion rights, and even President Joe Biden didn’t say the word “abortion” until nearly two years into his presidency when it was revealed the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe.

“The unique thing that happened this cycle is that people actually started talking about abortion,” said Amanda Brown Lierman, executive director of Supermajority, a women’s equality organization focused on voting.

“People were finally having conversations about abortion, the very women that we were talking to — the more they did that, the more emotion that came and the more activism that came as well. The fear that people have had about abortion, that’s what got flipped on its head this cycle.”

Voters’ anger and emotions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision was palpable. The political strategy seemingly switched overnight: Republicans were uncharacteristically quiet on abortion, while Democrats poured millions of dollars into pro-choice ads and events in the weeks leading up to midterms.

“Seeing folks run on protecting abortion rights, being full-throated in their support, signaling where they are and winning — that’s a lesson I hope the party takes, that I hope reproductive rights champions recognize,” said McGill Johnson. “There’s no losing when you stay in lockstep with where the majority of people are with respect to reproductive freedom.”

The fall of Roe also awakened people to where the fight for reproductive justice will mainly happen now: state legislatures. State lawmakers are often the most extreme anti-abortion politicians: enacting a near-total abortion ban in Indiana, creating a vigilante abortion restriction in Texas and introducing a fetal personhood law in Georgia, to name just a few.

People realized the outsize impact their votes had this election cycle and they seized the opportunity, said Brown Lierman. Democrats took control of the Michigan House and Senate for the first time since 1984 — a huge win for a state mired in a heated fight for abortion rights. Voters prevented GOP supermajorities in Wisconsin and North Carolina — the latter a critical haven state for abortion care — maintaining Democratic governors’ veto power. And voters in Pennsylvania rated abortion as a top issue this cycle, before likely taking control of the state House for the first time since 2010.

“The fear that people have had about abortion, that’s what got flipped on its head this cycle.”

- Amanda Brown Lierman, Supermajority

A lot of this success for Democrats came from reproductive rights groups doing work on the ground. They were able to knock on doors and talk to voters in person, which they hadn’t been able to do during the peak of the pandemic, as well as destigmatize abortion care and connect it to other critical issues like the economy and racial justice.

“Using reproductive freedom as the message framework for all these tough fights has been really important and persuasive,” Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said on Wednesday. “While we know that abortion was a driver for women and young people [this election cycle], we also know that those women and young people weren’t just Democrats.”

Just look at Kentucky. Despite easily sending Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) back to Washington and electing an array of other statewide Republican candidates, around 52% of Kentuckians voted against an anti-abortion ballot initiative.

“Abortion care is health care, and Kentuckians see it that way,” Tamarra Wieder, the Kentucky state director for the nonprofit Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, told HuffPost on Tuesday night. “They may align with political leaders for other issues, but on this one, they stand firm with abortion access.”

Worries Democrats Overplayed Their Hand

It was not always clear that focusing on abortion rights would be a winning strategy for Democrats.

In the run-up to the election, numerous Democratic strategists and officials — from moderate pundits to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — fretted that they should have spent more time discussing the economy and other issues. Meanwhile, Republicans downplayed how worried voters were, particularly in states where there wasn’t an immediate threat to access.

During the same interview where Forti admitted how much abortion access motivated Democrats, Senate Leadership Fund CEO Steven Law said he thought the opposing party had became far too reliant on the issue.

“Abortion became political junk food for the Democrats,” he said. “It enabled them to quickly gain in the ballot share, but mostly people who were already going to vote for them anyway. … It had the effect of distracting them from very serious political problems they had.”

The concern was of mixed merit. In House races, where there is less funding available, Democrats sometimes needed to stick to a single message like abortion. But in better-funded Senate and gubernatorial races, the party’s candidates could always afford to air ads on both abortion and economic issues.

“Throughout the entire cycle, Democrats have maintained a very aggressive economic track of communication with a goal of showing voters they understand that this is a tough economy for working people and that they’re trying to do something about it,” said David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the DSCC.

Democrats also connected abortion to other policy positions: Support for abortion bans was a key element in Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly’s efforts to paint GOP nominee Blake Masters as extreme, for example, and Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro often linked abortion rights to other freedoms like the right to vote.

“Opportunity won. A woman’s right to choose won. The right to organize here in Pennsylvania, that won. Your right to vote won,” Shapiro said in his victory speech. “You know what else won tonight? I’ll tell you what else won tonight. Real freedom won tonight.”

GOP Divided On Abortion Strategy

If abortion rights advocates and Democrats were riding high after the elections, Republicans were just getting started on what could be an ugly fight between social conservatives and the party’s consulting class. The GOP knew they would be on defense on this issue — the NRSC released a memo trying to guide their party’s messaging the morning after Politico leaked a draft opinion of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — but leading anti-abortion groups still wanted to push the issue.

Social conservatives thought they had found safe ground around a national 15-week abortion ban, which Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced in September. But relatively few Republicans were willing to embrace it, especially since polling from The Wall Street Journal found opposition to a 15-week ban growing from 43% in April to 57% in September.

And while Republicans frequently rhetorically attacked Democrats as extremists for supporting abortion later in pregnancy, that message rarely made it into TV ads. In a post-election memo, Susan B. Anthony List, a leading anti-abortion rights group, calculated Democrats spent $391 million on abortion-focused ads during the general election, compared to just $11 million from Republicans.

The four incumbent Republican governors who SBA held up as winning their races despite signing strict anti-abortion legislation — Brian Kemp of Georgia, Greg Abbott of Texas, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Ron DeSantis of Florida — didn’t run extensive advertising on abortion, and all four were able to widely outspend their Democratic opponents. (Incumbent governors also rarely lose reelection — only six lost from 2011 to 2020.)

“While we have examples of pro-life GOP candidates who were prepared and went on offense, there are also examples of candidates who were not prepared and took the ostrich strategy: burying their heads in the sand and running from the issue, allowing their opponents to define them,” the SBA memo read. “The losing ostrich strategy was largely pushed by the inside-the-beltway consultant/strategist class, who urged candidates to totally ignore abortion and hope it went away.”

Dan Cox, a pollster at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, said the party may need to moderate its stance on abortion in the future.

“DeSantis is a good example of a Republican who took a more moderate position on the issue and inoculated themselves against the political blowback,” he said. “There is room for Republicans to reassess the issue, and not completely change their views on it, but at least moderate and try to find some common ground.”

But Cox also said the party could face fierce resistance from its own base, noting his own polling found voters who believe abortion should be illegal without exception were the least likely to support a potential compromise on the issue. “It will be a challenge for Republican officials in purple states, or with national ambitions, to kind of navigate that,” he said.

Indeed, the GOP-supermajority Florida Legislature — which has been broadly supportive of almost all of DeSantis’ priorities — signaled it was likely to push further abortion restrictions in 2023.

At the same time, Cox noted, the young women who have been most angered by the Dobbs ruling are unlikely to stop showing up at the polls anytime soon. Cox’s polling shows them developing a sense of what political scientists call “linked fate” — the belief that what happens to one woman hurts all women. When a demographic develops linked fate, their turnout rates generally go up.

“It’s broader than abortion,” Cox said. “If you look at the Me Too movement, that was a formative experience, followed by Trump’s election and the Dobbs decision. These three things, in relatively short succession, are going to define how these women look at politics and the two parties for a long time to come.”

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