For years, Democrats warned that abortion rights were under grave threat. Across the US, antiabortion activists in red states chipped away at access and pushed for conservative judges to secure their gains. Yet for many Americans, the prospect of losing the constitutional right to abortion that had existed since 1973 remained worrying but remote.
That all changed in June, when in Dobbs v Jackson, the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade, the 49-year-old ruling which had established the right.
Since then, bans have taken effect in at least 10 states. Republicans are rushing ahead with new restrictions and stirring fears that other rights, including same-sex marriage and access to contraception, could be vulnerable too.
And yet, from rural Minnesota to ruby red Kansas and a conservative corner of Nebraska, there are signs of a brewing backlash that Democrats believe will reshape the battle for control of Congress and statehouses this fall.
Republicans are “the dog that caught the bus”, said Cecile Richards, a former head of Planned Parenthood. “This is what they’ve been wanting for years. Now they own it.”
White House officials, Democratic candidates and party strategists say the loss of reproductive choice has not only galvanized their once-disillusioned base but is strengthening Democrats’ appeal among independent and Republican-leaning women in suburbs who were key to the party’s recent victories.
The landslide vote to protect abortion rights in conservative Kansas earlier this month further emboldened Democrats – and emphasized that Republicans risk overreaching on one of the most emotionally charged issues in American life.
“The world just completely flipped upside down after the Dobbs decision,” said Richards, now co-chair at American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super Pac. “We’re no longer defending a right. We now actually have to fight to get a right back.”
‘A top-tier issue’
Republicans doubt abortion will be a decisive factor in a midterm election shaped by anxiety over high gas prices and inflation and an unpopular Democratic president.
“Every public and private poll shows inflation and the economy are the top issues headed into the midterms,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the Republican National Congressional Committee. “Democrats are desperate to talk about anything else because they have a disastrous record on both of those issues.”
But Democrats are forging ahead, lashing Republicans over their uncompromising stances and sometimes bizarre rhetoric on abortion.
Underscoring their confidence in the salience of abortion this election cycle, Democrats are spending heavily on television ads on the subject. One particularly searing ad from Stacey Abrams, the nominee for governor in Georgia, features a somber montage of women warning that women could be “criminalized” for seeking abortions if Brian Kemp, the Republican governor, is re-elected.
“The only way to stop this attack on the women of Georgia,” the women say, “is to stop Brian Kemp.”
Many of their ads aim to use Republicans’ words against them, as part of a broader effort by Democrats to cast the GOP as too extreme.
In Michigan, where voters may decide to enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution in November, the Democratic Governors Association launched an ad attacking the Republican nominee, Tudor Dixon, over her opposition to abortion, without exception for rape or incest.
In a similar vein, an ad from the the Democratic nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, features his far-right opponent, Doug Mastriano, saying “I don’t give a way for exceptions”, including when the life of the mother is at risk.
Polling has shown that most Americans support at least some abortion rights. According to the Pew Research Center, around 60% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases while just 8% say it should be illegal with no exceptions.
The aggressive messaging from Democrats is a reminder of how rapidly the politics of abortion have shifted.
Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster and strategist who has studied public opinion on abortion, said: “Six months ago, if you asked voters, ‘What’s the top priority that you want elected leaders to focus on,’ abortion might get 3%, 4%, 5% at most. Now it really is a top-tier issue, only behind inflation and the economy.”
Murphy said anti-abortion’s resounding defeat in the Kansas referendum showed voters were motivated by the opportunity “to stop something bad from happening”. To channel that fury, she said, Democrats must convince voters Republicans are not just opposed to abortion but a threat to it.
Some Democrats are adopting Republican language about government overreach on issues like masking to accuse their opponents of infringing on individual rights and freedoms when it comes to women’s reproductive health. It is all part of a broader strategy to cast Republicans as extremists determined to strip Americans of a right they have come to rely.
The pitch is similar to Democrats’ messaging in 2018, when they stormed to victory in the House after lashing Republicans over attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, said Camille Rivera, a Democratic strategist.
“As we learned with Obamacare, once you have a right, you don’t want really don’t want that right taken away,” she said.
Another key question for this November is just how much abortion rights will resonate among independent women in battleground suburbs who have deep concerns about the economy. Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist, said abortion was usually not the first issue raised in focus groups with swing voters. But when prompted, the discussion around abortion often became personal.
“The thing that happens when you start talking to a group of women about abortion is they immediately start telling stories about complications and the things that can go wrong during a pregnancy,” she said in a recent interview.
What is clear, Longwell said, is that women, even those who call themselves “pro-life”, are “deeply uncomfortable with the idea of getting between women and their doctors on decisions that could put their lives at risk”.
‘We are living it’
Republicans are largely shying away from the issue on the campaign trail. With total bans proving deeply unpopular, some candidates are softening their rhetoric, emphasizing support for exceptions and for the health and well-being of women. In Nevada, a battleground state, the Republican candidate for Senate, Adam Laxalt, has argued that his personal opposition to abortion would not change protections already in place.
“My views have not shifted the policy in Nevada, nor has the ruling in the Dobbs case,” Laxalt wrote earlier this month. “Voters in 1990 determined that Nevada is and will remain a pro-choice state.”
But the issue is hard to ignore. Harrowing stories have spread. A 10-year-old girl who was raped had to travel from Ohio to Indiana to get an abortion. Weeks later, Indiana became the first state in the post-Roe era to adopt a near-total ban. This week, a judge in Florida told a 16-year-old she was not “not sufficiently mature” to decide whether to have an abortion.
“We are no longer speaking about this as a hypothetical,” Murphy said. “We are living it.”
Among Kansans who registered to vote in the wake of the Dobbs ruling, Democrats held an eight-point advantage, according to data from TargetSmart. Among those newly registered voters, 70% were women.
In Minnesota’s first district, the Democrat lost by just four points. Donald Trump won there by more than 10 in 2020. The trend was more pronounced in a June election in Nebraska’s first district. Two years ago, Trump won there by nearly 15 points. This year, the Republican won by six.
Analysts caution against drawing firm conclusions from such a small sampling. Republicans only need to win a handful of seats to gain control of the House, as they are favored to do, while the 50-50 Senate remains a genuine toss-up.
A special election in New York on Tuesday may offer more clues. In the most competitive House race since Roe fell, the Democrat, Pat Ryan, has made abortion central to his campaign. The Republican, Marc Molinaro, has focused on the economy and inflation.
Urging New Yorkers to vote, Ryan said “choice” and “freedom” were both “on the ballot”.