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Abortion access proved to be a powerful force in 2022 midterm elections

Abortion rights on the ballot in 5 states
Five states vote on abortion rights measures 04:45

For much of the last half century, Republicans have effectively galvanized their voters around the issue of abortion in hopes of a Supreme Court reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade. That happened in June and since then, it's been Democrats who have been able to seize on the political opening that appeared when the high court ended the federal right to an abortion. 

Abortion access ultimately proved to be a powerful force in the 2022 midterm elections, lifting Democrats in battleground states and helping to weaken the anticipated Republican wave into a ripple.

In the five states where the issue was directly on the ballot, every contest leaned in favor of protecting abortion rights — even in heavily Republican states like Kentucky and Montana.

In Pennsylvania and Michigan, voters ranked abortion access as their top concern, outpacing inflation. That dynamic helped propel Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman to victory, flipping a U.S. Senate seat from Republicans. And in Michigan, an amendment to protect abortion rights easily passed. Campaigning on the issue, Democrats kept the governorship and won control of the state legislature for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Voters in California and Vermont passed similar ballot initiatives. And voters in Kentucky and Montana rejected measures that would have further restricted abortion. 

These outcomes help answer one of the central questions of the midterm campaign: whether fervor over the fall of Roe v. Wade in the summer could last through November. 

"Despite the devastating loss of Roe this summer, there have been a lot of reasons for hope this year," said Ashley All, a senior advisor for Families United for Freedom, who worked to help defeat the Kansas abortion ballot initiative in August and provided funding and resources in the Michigan, Kentucky and Montana efforts. The group approached the issue in a nonpartisan way and is already engaging with other states where fights over abortion rights are likely to play out moving forward.

In total, more than $428 million was spent on advertising on the issue in the midterms, with Democrats vastly outspending Republicans, according to tracking by AdImpact. 

In Michigan, Democrats spent more than $38 million; Republicans spent just over $7.5 million. In Nevada, Democrats spent more than $36 million, Republicans $1.4 million. In Arizona, Democrats spent more than $30.7 million, Republicans spent $3.3 million. In Pennsylvania, Democrats spent more than $27 million; Republicans spent less than $65,000.

Anti-abortion groups acknowledged the potency of the Democrats' strategy. "There's no doubt that the Dobbs decision was a political earthquake, creating a unique opportunity for Democrats to motivate their depressed base and giving them the best opportunity they'll ever have to use the issue politically," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. 

Dannenfelser said that in addition to the large disparity in spending on this issue, key GOP candidates demoralized their own base by taking the "ostrich strategy: burying their heads in the sand and running from the issue, allowing their opponents to define them." She pointed to Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and criticized Senate Leader Mitch McConnell for being absent from the ballot efforts in his home state of Kentucky. 

"There really is power in this issue," said Jill Alper, the lead strategist on the Michigan ballot measure, known as Proposal 3. Alper noted the ballot's success in areas of the state where Democrats typically don't do well. "Proposal 3was winning in places it had no business winning," she said.

Exit polling in Michigan found that 45% of voters ranked abortion as their top issue — leading inflation by double digits. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made abortion access a central part of her campaign after preemptively suing to block a 1931 abortion ban from going into effect with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Her opponent Tudor Dixon opposed abortion including in cases of rape and incest. 

The issue also worked to Democrats' advantage in states without direct ballot measures. 

In Pennsylvania, exit polling showed abortion was the top issue for voters. Thirty-seven percent named it their top issue — beating inflation (28%) and crime (11%). Democrat Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania's attorney general, won the governor's race by double digits against state Senator Doug Mastriano, who was against abortion, including in cases of rape and incest. While abortion rights were not directly on the ballot in the state — Republicans controlled the legislature, and a Republican governor could have paved the way to further restrictions. 

"It's not freedom to tell women what they're allowed to do with their bodies. That's not freedom," Shapiro said to a packed rally ahead of Election Day. Not only did Mastriano lose, but Democrats appear poised to take control of the state House for the first time since 2010.

Part of Fetterman's campaign message focused in on abortion rights, attempting to tie Oz to Mastriano and anti-abortion rights efforts. During the lone debate, Oz said abortion decisions should be between women, doctors and "local political leaders." Democrats quickly clipped the video and featured it in campaign ads.

It was a key issue for Democratic volunteers, too. Karen Moustafellos who organized with the grassroots organization Red, Wine and Blue, which targets women in the suburbs, said she discussed abortion as an economic issue as well as personal rights.  

"Taking away rights, once we lose them, it's really really going to take a lot longer to get them back," Moustafellos said.

New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, who was once considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats seeking reelection, was one of the first candidates to go up with ads focused on abortion in the wake of the Dobbs decision. She continued to air ads on the issue throughout the election season even though her opponent, Don Bolduc, was not determined until September, one of the last primaries. 

As polls showed the race tightening, Hassan kept up that line of attack, seizing on Don Bolduc's comments on the overturning of Roe v. Wade to "get over it." Exit polling showed abortion was nearly on par with inflation as the most important issue, 35% to 36%. Hassan won women by nearly 20 percentage points. Democrats also held onto both House seats.  

After the Dobbs decision in June, more women registered to vote in key battleground states than during the same time period in 2018 or 2020, Tom Bonier of TargetSmart found. 

"When we look at the states that had the biggest Dobbs effect, they had the biggest surges in registration among women, especially younger women after Dobbs, you're seeing Democrats frankly just performing better," Bonier said, pointing to results in Michigan and Pennsylvania. "You certainly are seeing a very similar pattern to what we were seeing in the voter registration data."

He noted that in Kansas where there was a surge in women registering to vote before the August primary when voters rejected a measure that could lead to further abortion restrictions, Democrats had success Tuesday as well. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly won reelection and Congresswoman Sharice Davids won a third term despite redistricting that favored Republicans. 

However, the Dobbs decision didn't appear to have a similar effect on voter registrations in Florida, where Republicans won resoundingly in key statewide and congressional races on Tuesday. 

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a 15-week abortion limit into law, won 53% of women. And GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who also supported the measure, won 51% of women. 

In addition to DeSantis, other Republican governors who signed abortion restrictions into state law also won reelection. Ohio's Mike DeWine; Brian Kemp, of Georgia; and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott all won by significant margins.

"GOP pro-life candidates win in competitive races if they define their opponents as abortion extremists…and contrast that with a clearly defined pro-life position centered around consensus such as pain-capable or heartbeat limits," said Dannenfelser. "This must be the key takeaway for the GOP as we head into the 2024 presidential cycle, especially those eyeing a run for the White House.

Jennifer De Pinto contributed to this report.

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