How abortion helped blunt a red wave in midterms

All Senator from the State of Michigan Mallory McMorrow wanted to swing his house of the legislature to the Democrats.

McMorrow—which gained national attention for its viral response to right spots — knew that abortion would be mainstream for nearly every race in the state. In addition to the governor’s race and House races, Michigan voters also weighed Proposition 3, a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to protect abortion rights. She started seeing otherwise apolitical friends supporting the ballot measure on Instagram. Still, although McMorrow remained confident about the chances of some Democrats in Michigan, the general perception was that Democrats faced an uphill battle due to a sluggish economy and poor national mood.

But on Tuesday, Michigan voters not only overwhelmingly approved Proposition 3, they also re-elected Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, along with other Democratic women in the state like Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. They re-elected Representative Elisa Slotkin, who was defending a Democratic Party hot spot. And to the surprise of even officials like McMorrow, they gave the Democrats not only the state senate, but the state house as well.

“I didn’t expect we’d get the trifecta,” says McMorrow. “I don’t think any survey has captured how angry and energized people still are.”

State Rep. Darin Camilleri, a Democrat who won a state Senate seat Tuesday night, says after knocking on 130,000 doors, he believes abortion was the deciding factor in turning Michigan dark blue. “It boosted turnout in ways we didn’t expect,” he says.

What happened in Michigan was just the most visible example of a phenomenon that has reverberated across the country since the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down half a century of abortion rights. Voters who supported reproductive freedom turned to Democrats in the midterms, blunting what was expected to be a Republican surge. Abortion came in second only to inflation as the most important issue to voters, according to NBC News exit polls, with 76% of Democrats citing abortion as a top concern. Among female voters, white college-educated voters, early voters and Hispanic voters, according to NBC exit polls, abortion was the number one issue. More than 6 in 10 voters — including 27 percent of Republicans — said they were unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org a decision that has been overturned Roe v. Wade. And while it may be days before solid data is available on youth voter turnout, veteran pollster John Della Volpe says his surveys show young women and college students have increased enthusiasm since Dobbspotentially enough to offset conservative voters in older generations in certain races.

Read more: Here are the latest updates on the midterm election results

The emphasis on abortion has put Republicans on the defensive in key state races like Pennsylvania, while boosting Democrats’ chances in tight congressional districts they expected to lose. “Democrats defied the laws of political gravity last night in the best possible way,” said McKenzie Wilson, communications director for the progressive data firm Data for Progress. “And clearly Dobbs the decision was the main reason.”

This resulted in major victories for reproductive rights, both in political contests and in ballots where the rights themselves were on the ballot. In all five states with abortion-related referendums on November 8, the abortion rights position was on course to win clear victories, even in deep red states. In addition to Michigan, voters rejected an amendment in Kentucky that would have curtailed abortion rights, and are about to do the same in Montana. “If you’re the anti-abortion movement and you can’t win that vote in Kentucky, the question is can you win that vote anywhere?” said Mary Ziegler, a professor at UC Davis School of Law who has written four books on abortion politics.

Supreme Court Time Dobbs That decision meant Republicans “were dealt a bad hand politically,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjon. “The abortion issue really helped the Democrats at a time when there was nothing to get voters interested in voting for their party.”

After Dobbs decision Republicans passed a cascade of abortion restrictions across the country, which limit the procedure in some states to six weeks of pregnancy, sometimes with very limited exceptions. The Dobbs the decision and its aftermath allowed Democrats to argue that the Republican Party is extreme on abortion, sometimes restricting the procedure even in cases of rape and incest—a highly unpopular position rejected by a large majority of voters. “There’s a limit to what voters will accept,” says Democratic strategist Tyler Lowe.

In Michigan, that meant the fight to protect reproductive rights gave Democrats unified control of a state that Donald Trump won in 2016 for the first time in nearly 40 years. “This is a whole new state for the first time in our lives,” says McMorrow. “It felt like the ‘Don’t mess with those Michigan women’ campaign.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter c [email protected].

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