Support for abortion rights appears to have been a major factor in the midterm elections, helping Democrats fare much better than expected in many places. Though Republicans yielded control of the House, dashing hopes of federal legislation to codify Roe v. Wade in the next two years, the midterm results suggest that running on abortion can be a winning strategy for Democrats. The outcome offers lessons to Democrats looking ahead to a 2024 presidential election that could determine if a federal abortion ban is on the table.
But even more than that, the midterms offer lessons about where and how reproductive rights supporters should focus their efforts to have the most immediate and most widespread impact. A federal solution to the end of the constitutional right to abortion (like Roe codification) might not be on offer, but momentum is building behind campaigns to restore or expand reproductive rights in the states, especially through ballot measures.
The five ballot measures on abortion, all of which went for the pro-choice side, were the clearest sign not only of public support for abortion access but of the strength of organizing on the issue at the state level. Vermont, California and Michigan passed amendments to enshrine the right to abortion in their constitutions by wide majorities — 77, 67 and 57 percent, respectively. Montanans defeated a confusingly written anti-abortion measure that was aimed at convincing voters that aborted fetuses are “born alive.” In Kentucky, a state that has among the highest percentages of anti-abortion residents in the country, voters rejected an amendment declaring there is no right to abortion in the state constitution.
Combined with the landslide defeat of an anti-abortion amendment in Kansas in August, five weeks after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe, these victories show the power of ballot measures to mobilize pro-choice majorities even in red states.
The measures on abortion rights “were higher vote-getters than many of the candidates and they transcended party lines,” Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive organization that supports ballot measures, told me.
Already, efforts are underway to get pro-choice initiatives on the ballot in states including Idaho, Nebraska and Ohio. But there are limits to this strategy. Only about half the states have a ballot initiative process that allows citizens, rather than state legislatures, to put a measure on the ballot. Conservative efforts to alter the citizen initiative process have been on the rise since 2016 in response to progressive wins, with 109 bills introduced this year alone, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
In Michigan, the immediate threat posed by the state’s enjoined 1931 abortion ban may have helped turn out voters not just for the reproductive freedom initiative, but for Democratic candidates. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and one of the most outspoken defenders of abortion rights in the 2022 field, had sued to block the 90-year-old ban. Michigan voters not only re-elected Ms. Whitmer, but handed Democrats control of both chambers of the State Legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years. The winning formula for the amendment was “a cross-racial coalition,” that included Indigenous, Latinx and African American groups as well as Republicans, Independents and labor, according to the deputy campaign manager for the initiative, Shanay Watson-Whittaker.
What makes Republicans and progressives come together? “It was honestly Dobbs,” Ms. Watson-Whittaker said. “The decision brought everybody together.” In Michigan, at least, that togetherness seems to have paid off for Democrats.
One energized pocket of that campaign was in the state’s Upper Peninsula, where Susan Anderson and other women from Sault Ste. Marie helped gather nearly 754,000 statewide signatures to get the reproductive freedom amendment on the ballot. Ms. Anderson, who works in accounting and has voted for Republican candidates in the past, said she had never been engaged in a political campaign until the Michigan amendment. “It’s changed my life,” Ms. Anderson said. “I want to get involved in other stuff now.”
The women frequented drag shows and farmers markets, organized marches and knocked on doors. Jonelle Cooper, a mother of three who cleans Airbnbs part-time, said she was motivated to join the campaign by her own experiences; she had an abortion at 18 and years later, after not being able to get the medical care she needed for a pregnancy loss, delivered a stillborn baby alone in a domestic violence shelter bathroom. “This has become my full-time job,” Ms. Cooper told me five days before the vote. “I know what women are going to go through if this doesn’t pass.”
Sara Maurer said she stuck with the campaign even after her pastor objected to her participation, declaring her out of fellowship with her beloved church. These women’s stories reflect the transformation of a growing pro-choice majority into a mobilized political force. But it will likely take this movement, with its new and at times uneasy alliances, more than several months to reach its full potential at the ballot box.
As expected, the midterms delivered plenty of losses for abortion rights. In Ohio, Republicans won all three open seats on the Ohio Supreme Court, a key backstop for abortion rights, and re-elected Gov. Mike DeWine, who signed the state’s six-week abortion ban (which is currently enjoined). Using maps that had been declared unconstitutional because they favored Republicans, the G.O.P. in Ohio expanded its supermajority in the State Legislature, even as voters fended off Republican supermajorities in North Carolina and Wisconsin, and flipped a chamber each to Democrats in Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
One lesson from these losses is that entrenched anti-abortion majorities, especially in deeply gerrymandered states like Ohio, will take more than one election to uproot — if they ever can be. Another is that support for legal abortion does not always translate into support for Democratic candidates. Consider Kentucky, where 52 percent of voters defeated the anti-abortion amendment even as more than 60 percent of them re-elected Senator Rand Paul, a Republican who is staunchly anti-abortion. The latest data shows the campaign to defeat the amendment won about 178,000 more votes than Mr. Paul’s Democratic opponent, Charles Booker. That gap suggests plenty of Republican and independent voters were convinced by the campaign’s central message: that the amendment could lead to the removal of all exceptions for abortion, even the limited life endangerment exception in Kentucky’s existing abortion ban.
“My granddaughter may not have the option to end a pregnancy to stay alive,” a grandmother says in one ad created by the campaign. “We can’t go backwards.”
The ad taps into the widespread horror among many voters over the loss of a 50-year-old right that is deeply personal. The reference to “going backwards” speaks to a common fear that ending Roe could be a slippery slope to decimating other long-held rights, from birth control to interracial marriage. This burgeoning sense of fear and outrage, stemming from personal experiences with the highly stigmatized issue of abortion, may have been difficult to capture in polls.
Besides the grandmother in the ad, there are young adult grandchildren to credit for the midterm results. The generation for whom the overturning of Roe v. Wade will mark a defining political moment showed up in force to vote. Early estimates show 27 percent of young people turned out — the second highest percentage for a midterm in the past 30 years, after a record year in 2018 following Donald Trump’s election — and 63 percent of them voted for Democratic House candidates.
The effort to restore abortion rights through a coalition that includes voters who supported right-wing candidates won’t be easy or uncomplicated — but the midterm results show it is well underway.
“It took 50 years for people to undo Roe,” Virginia Kase Solomón, C.E.O. of the League of Women Voters, said. “We’re hoping that it’s not going to take that long to restore it, but we know that we have a road ahead of us.”
Amy Littlefield is the abortion access correspondent for The Nation.
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