The abortion issue was credited with helping shield Democrats from a red tide in Tuesday’s midterm elections, but as far as pro-life leaders were concerned, the Republican fizzle was self-inflicted.
Both sides in the abortion debate were poring over the final returns and the Republican gains that were far less than expected. Pro-choice groups were cheering a string of wins in state referendums on abortion rights, including an unexpected victory in conservative Kentucky.
Pro-life groups were toting up the list of Republican candidates who won their races after taking strong stands for abortion restrictions and fighting Democratic efforts to portray them as extremists. The Republican Party leadership’s strategy was to deflect on abortion or dismiss it as a state issue.
“The advice there was to pretend it wasn’t there, quickly say something, anything, and then move on to other issues, instead of dealing with it in a mature, deliberative and principled manner,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
That means “define who you are, define who they are, and exploit that contrast. That works every time,” she said on a press call. “Instead, they engaged in what is really political malpractice.”
Still, the unexpected strength of the abortion rights issue emerged as a key post-election takeaway after the much-anticipated Republican wave dissolved into a ripple. Democrats were quick to claim the issue — and the female voters energized by the Supreme Court’s decision this summer striking down the Roe v. Wade national right to abortion — helped them avoid the losses that the party in the White House historically sustains in midterm elections.
Republicans banked on the flagging economy, rising crime rates and President Biden’s low approval ratings to deliver a red tsunami, but an exit poll conducted by Edison Research for media outlets showed that abortion ranked a close second behind inflation as the top concern of voters. In the key swing state of Pennsylvania, where Democrats won the governor’s race and picked up a Republican-held Senate seat, initial exit polls said abortion was the top issue for 36% of voters, compared with 29% who cited inflation and the economy.
“Democracy wasn’t on the ballot, but abortion was, and it seems that the democracy has spoken in favor of abortion,” tweeted conservative Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule.
Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson said “one thing is clear: Reproductive freedom is on the ballot. Voters choose control over their bodies, lives and futures every time. Abortion rights win.”
With the final votes still trickling in, pro-choice forces were poised to deliver a clean sweep on the five abortion-related state ballot initiatives. Proposed constitutional amendments to “codify Roe” won handily in California, Michigan and Vermont, while a measure to add a pro-life provision to the state constitution was defeated in Kentucky by a 52% to 47% margin.
A “born alive” initiative in Montana requiring medical professionals to try to save the life of a baby born after a botched abortion was losing 52.2% to 47.8% with 83% of the vote counted, but The Associated Press had not announced a result as of late Wednesday.
“Everywhere access to abortion was on the ballot last night, voters overwhelmingly chose to protect that right. Today I am so grateful for the activists and advocates who worked to defend the rights of women to make their own decisions,” said Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey Democrat.
Mr. Biden, addressing White House reporters Wednesday afternoon, called Tuesday a “good day for democracy” and said that, while he was prepared to work with Republicans in the next Congress, he would veto any Republican attempt to enact a nationwide bill restricting or abolishing abortion rights.
The issue was also credited with helping rescue embattled Democrats such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who pulled out victories after running on their pro-choice credentials.
The pro-life movement rejoiced after the Supreme Court’s June 24 opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but the ruling also energized Democrats. That enthusiasm translated into a fundraising haul this year of nearly a half-billion dollars.
“Democrats took the opportunity and ran with it, spending $391 million on abortion-focused TV ads alone during the general election, vs. just $11 million on the GOP side, a 35:1 spending ratio,” the SBA analysis said. “Yet for those candidates who went on offense, the astonishing amount of money did not prevail.”
Republican candidates who engaged on the abortion issue included Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis, both of whom cruised to victory in Florida, as well as Sen.-elect Ted Budd in North Carolina, Sen.-elect J.D. Vance in Ohio and a host of governors who signed bills limiting abortion.
A national strategy
Ms. Dannenfelser argued that Republicans need a federal strategy on abortion, something many have been loath to adopt.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, was pilloried for introducing a bill in September that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, but supporters such as Mr. Rubio and Mr. Budd were able to use it to their advantage on the campaign trail.
“Marco Rubio was the first to embrace the 15-week bill,” said SBA political strategist Frank Cannon. “He ran ads defining his opponent. He did not shy away from the particulars of the 15-week bill, and he totally neutralized [Democrat] Val Demings on the issue.”
Governors who stood by their bills limiting abortion access, including Greg Abbott of Texas, Mr. DeSantis, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, “were able to weather whatever storm it was and to win.”
On the other side was Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, who frustrated pro-life activists by avoiding the issue. He lost to Democrat John Fetterman by 50.5% to 47.1% with 94% of the votes counted.
“Even though we wanted [Mr. Oz] to win, and we broke our backs helping him to win, he did a very poor job saying what he would do if he were elected for the people of Pennsylvania on the life front,” Ms. Dannenfelser said.
She attributed the losses on the five state initiatives to the overwhelming cash advantage of pro-choice advocates, an edge difficult to overcome without a strong leader such as a candidate to make the case.
The Kentucky measure would have prohibited adding the right to abortion to the state constitution, but opponents portrayed it in ads as a direct threat to the lives of pregnant women seeking abortions in medical emergencies.
“It’s really hard to undo a lie when you’re outspent 10-to-1 if you don’t have a candidate on the debate stage,” Ms. Dannenfelser said.
Kentucky is the home of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but he was nowhere to be found on the campaign trail for the referendum, Mr. Cannon said.
“[Kentucky] was a state where the argument is, ‘It’s a state issue,’ but McConnell was not in the state arguing for the ballot initiative,” Mr. Cannon said. “There was nobody who was the personification of the argument making it clear with their credibility what was at stake.”
Unless pro-life politicians step up, he said, “we’re going to be in trouble.”
Pro-life leaders said they hoped the Republican Party would change its strategy before the 2024 elections and advise candidates to tackle the issue head-on instead of hoping it goes away.
“If you get accused of wanting to put women in jail, being happy if they die, all of the ridiculous accusations that get thrown your way, and you say nothing about what your own position is, and fail to outline the other person’s position, it sticks,” Ms. Dannenfelser said. “And you might lose.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.