Democrats Have Embraced Abortion Rights as an Election-Defining Issue

A single race can only tell you so much. But if there’s something to be learned from this late summer primary season, it’s that the Supreme Court’s disastrous Dobbs ruling appears to be galvanizing voters. First, there was Kansas, where voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment earlier this month that would have eliminated abortion protections in the state. Then, in New York on Tuesday, Democrat Pat Ryan trounced Republican Marc Molinaro in a swing district special election that Ryan repeatedly framed as a battle over reproductive freedom. Ryan’s upset victory did not happen in a vacuum, as CNN reported Wednesday: Before the rescission of Roe, Democrats performed worse in special elections than Joe Biden did in 2020 presidential election. But in four special elections since, they’ve outperformed him by a five-point margin.

The 2022 map and political climate remain perilous for the Democrats, despite the party’s recent momentum as well as intra-GOP dysfunction. But the apparent potency of abortion should be a lesson for Democrats: After years of mostly running away from the issue, effectively allowing anti-abortion extremists to define the limits of the debate, they must run on preserving and expanding reproductive rights.

“Choice was on the ballot,” Ryan said in a statement after his special election win Tuesday night. “Freedom was on the ballot, and tonight choice and freedom won.”

It goes without saying that, on the ground, freedom is not winning. As The Washington Post reported Monday, one in three women in America have lost access to abortion since the Dobbs ruling two months ago, and that number is only going to grow as additional trigger laws take effect in Texas, Tennessee, and Idaho this week. In other words, a great deal of damage has already been done at the state level, and merely translating voter outrage into a few Democratic victories might not provide much comfort to the millions of Americans who have or will be impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision—especially if Republicans can continue using state legislatures as petri dishes for abhorrent antidemocratic policy.

But if Democrats can find a way to buck the historical midterm trends—and overcome Biden’s still-lagging approval ratings—they could find themselves positioned to preserve reproductive freedom by enshrining it into federal law. Doing so would require them to not only keep their majority, but to expand it—a challenging prospect, particularly during off-year elections. It’s probably unlikely they’ll pull it off—but not quite as unlikely as it seemed just a couple months ago, when the party’s agenda was stalled, when Biden seemed like a liability, and when the GOP was playing on Americans’ (understandable) economic anxieties. But now, Democrats seem to have gotten a second wind: They’ve scored a string of substantial legislative victories; polling suggests Biden’s unpopularity may not be a major deciding factor in November; and issues like abortion and the future of American democracy may be overtaking inflation at the top of voters’ minds.

Over the past few weeks, Democrats have made abortion access an ideological centerpiece in various campaigns across the country, including in gubernatorial races that could determine whether a state allows or forbids the procedure. Much of that effort has played out over the airwaves, with dozens of Democratic candidates hammering their right-wing opponents in attack ads for taking hardline stances on the abortion post-Dobbs. “Rarely has an issue been handed on a silver platter to Democrats that is so clear-cut,” as Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg told The New York Times. “It took an election that was going to be mostly about inflation and immigration and made it also about abortion.”

But Dobbs didn’t just shift the ideological landscape; it may also have changed the Democrats’ electoral outlook too. This week in Florida, former U.S. representative Charlie Crist, a staunch pro-choice advocate, was chosen as the state’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee to challenge Ron DeSantis, who has spearheaded a sweeping crackdown on abortion access all throughout the Sunshine State. “On Day One of my administration, I will sign an executive order protecting a woman’s right to choose,” Crist vowed during his Tuesday night victory speech. And in Pennsylvania, the bellwether state where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro has likewise made clear that he’ll protect abortion rights, women have driven a surge in new voter registrations. “The next governor is going to get a bill on his desk to ban abortion,” Shapiro recently told Vanity Fair

Since the reversal of Roe, nearly two-thirds of women to register in Pennsylvania have done so as Democrats. “A lot of people, they heard abortion was punted to the state and then people run and go look at their state and they’re like, ‘Oh…I’m in one of the bad ones,” Jamie Perrapato, executive director of Turn PA Blue, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. Those “bad ones,” where reproductive rights have been eliminated or dramatically scaled back, appear to have even “more pronounced” gender gaps among new registrants, according to Tom Bonier, CEO of Target Smart, a Democratic polling firm. 

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Again, that doesn’t mean Democrats are at some kind of advantage in November, nor does it do much to ease the pain of the Supreme Court’s decision. But it does offer the party, perhaps finally ready to act with around the issue, a potential roadmap for November and beyond. “We voted like our democracy was on the line because it is,” Ryan said in his statement after defeating Molinaro in upstate New York. “We upended everything we thought we knew about politics and did it together.”

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