Is abortion a winning midterm issue for Democrats?

Large public protests in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in June and a resounding defeat of a pro-life amendment in Kansas in August have fueled Democrats’ hopes that the abortion issue will help tilt the Nov. 8 midterm elections in their favor.

Is this wishful thinking — considering President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and the worrisome state of the economy — or a sound strategy?

Democrats are banking on the latter. The party has spent an estimated $124 million in abortion-related television ads this midterm season, according to a recent AP analysis. That’s almost 20 times more than what it spent on such ads in 2018.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have doubled down on efforts to federalize abortion up until birth while trying to paint Republicans as the extremists on the abortion issue — a strategy that kicked into gear the moment Roe was overturned.

That day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that Republicans would pursue a national abortion ban if they won the midterms.

“They cannot be allowed to have a majority in the Congress to do that. That’s their goal,” Pelosi told reporters.

For the Democrats, there are signs the strategy may be paying off. Some polls suggest that abortion has risen in importance and will galvanize voter turnout. Voter registration surged after Dobbs, a recent Politico analysis reports, notably so in states like Pennsylvania where abortion features prominently in this year’s campaigns.

Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race pits Republican Doug Mastriano, who would enact a heartbeat bill, against Democrat Josh Shapiro, who promises to veto any bill restricting abortion. Shapiro is ahead of Mastriano by 10 percentage points in some polls.

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The abortion issue has seemed to help Democrat Senate candidate John Fetterman, who is leading Republican Mehmet Oz by a slim margin.

In September, a CBS poll found that 70% of likely voters cited abortion as key to why they favored Fetterman, compared with 30% who supported Oz.

“Women are the reason we can win,” Fetterman said at an abortion rights rally in September.

But Fetterman’s recent drop in support shows a possible toss-up race that could go either way. Fetterman originally led among suburban women 57% to Oz’s 33%; one recent poll shows his lead has narrowed in the suburbs, 47% to Oz’s 41%.

Even in historically red seats, where abortion is unlikely to outweigh inflation or jobs for voters, Democrat candidates are pushing hard to make abortion a focal centerpiece.

Washington State’s 3rd Congressional District House race is a case in point. Democrat candidate Marie Gluesenkamp Perez describes herself as a “pro-choice mother” who needed an “immediate abortion” to save her life after having a miscarriage.

Perez’s messaging echoes the Democratic Party’s efforts to raise fears that abortion bans will endanger women who have miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies.

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Meanwhile, Republican opponent Joe Kent has said he’d move toward a national abortion ban and has discussed fetal pain and cutting federal abortion funding — positions Perez classifies as “extremist.”

Perez currently trails Kent by 4 percentage points, according to the latest poll by the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Where do Republicans stand?

In large part, current GOP leadership has shied away from directly engaging on abortion in this campaign cycle, hoping that voter concerns about the economy will win out.

Political strategists say Democrats have seized the GOP’s abortion messaging vacuum as Republicans have floundered on a post-Roe strategy.

Jon Schweppe, policy director at American Principles Project, says Democrats could win on abortion if Republicans continue to play on defense.

“Republican leadership over the summer basically decided to ignore abortion,” Schweppe told CNA.

“They’ve been caught flat-footed,” Schweppe added. “What happens is pretty logical. If one team is on the field, and the other team isn’t, the team that’s on the field wins.”

As one example, the Commitment to America plan House Republicans unveiled in September makes only a brief reference to a pledge to “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers,” avoiding any concrete plans on how Republicans will reckon with abortion at the federal level if they regain the House.

“The problem is — and we’ve already seen this in a bunch of races — you can’t punt,” Schweppe said. “Ultimately, the Democrats [will] run the messaging, whether you pivot to inflation or not.”

In addition, the mixed support from Republicans and pro-life groups for South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s federal 15-week ban on abortion in September hints at the difficulties the pro-life movement is having in reaching a consensus on a national strategy post-Roe.

“If Republican leadership and the pro-life movement doesn’t come together and establish a federal position for the party, we’re going to set the pro-life movement back 20 years,” Schweppe warned.

He added that the GOP’s skittishness has made Democrat misinformation on abortion much more effective.

“If the American people think you’re gonna ban [treatment for] ectopic pregnancies — which we know is not an abortion, but [Democrats] lie about that — the American people will pick the status quo,” he added.

Charles Camosy, professor of medical humanities at Creighton University, agrees.

“It will certainly be true if pro-lifers and pro-life politicians do nothing and let our opponents grab the whole narrative,” he said.

Camosy isn’t a Republican but says he wants whatever party that “protects prenatal justice and supports women who choose to keep their children” to win.

Kaitlin Makuski, political coordinator for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told CNA that ignoring abortion will hurt Republicans.

“There is a desire to run away from this question among certain candidates. But ultimately voters do want to know where you stand on these issues. This is a fundamental question: the right to life.”

Makuski said that hoping the issue will go away is not a winning strategy.

“You have to be clear on what you believe and where you stand. Voters care about your opinion on a broad swath of issues; that’s why you’re running for office,” she added.

Makuski cited the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, Kari Lake, as an example of one of the best on abortion strategy and messaging.

Lake has played on offense throughout her campaign, including on abortion. Her response to a reporter’s hostile question on the issue went viral in a video last week.

“My plan would be that every woman who walks into an abortion clinic knows that there are options out there,” Lake said. “We want to help our women.”

Lake challenged the media in the room to ask her opponent, Democrat Katie Hobbs, where she stands on abortion.

“Let me tell you where she stands,” Lake said. “She supports abortion right up until birth, and after birth.”

“None of you ever try to get her to talk about her stance,” she pointed at the media. “Tell her I want to debate this topic with her on Oct. 12.”

Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake greets the audience during a stop at American Way Market on Sept. 20, 2022, in Chandler, Arizona. Lake, the Trump-endorsed nominee for governor, faces Democrat Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in November. Rebecca Noble/Getty Images
Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake greets the audience during a stop at American Way Market on Sept. 20, 2022, in Chandler, Arizona. Lake, the Trump-endorsed nominee for governor, faces Democrat Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in November. Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

Makuski said Lake’s emphasis on Hobbs’ abortion extremism coupled with supporting women has made her successful.

“[Lake has] been very unapologetic about her pro-life values, but also unapologetic about wanting to support women,” she said.

Hobbs has largely campaigned on the abortion issue. She has pledged to immediately repeal Arizona’s reinstated 1901 abortion ban, veto abortion restrictions, appoint pro-choice directors to the state’s health departments, and fund Planned Parenthood.

“Let me be clear — the decision to have a child should rest solely between a woman and her doctor, not the government or politicians,” Hobbs said on her campaign site.

Patrick Brown, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says the shifts in polling indicate a voter bloc conflicted over abortion.

“Democrats recognize that America is very muddled on abortion. A lot of people don’t like abortion, but also are sort of uneasy with the idea of it being unavailable,” he told CNA.

“There’s a very conflicted middle, so Democrats are trying to obviously paint Republicans as the extremists on this topic,” he said.

Brown urges Republicans to lead on pro-family policies like child tax credits, paid family leave, and investing in crisis pregnancy centers. 

“It calls for a new era of politics,” Brown said. “We’re seeing this vacuum of leadership that I don’t think is healthy.”

Dems can’t ignore inflation, Biden poll numbers

Ultimately, Democrats still have to contend with Biden’s low approval ratings and polls that show that the economic downturn remains among voters’ highest priorities this November.

“Democrats know that [the economy] is a losing issue for them, so they’re going to try and ignore that as much as possible and focus on abortion,” Makuski said.

“But I also think some of them are realizing they’ll have to reckon with the economy,” she added.

The American Prospect, a progressive public policy magazine, argued last month that Democrats need to message on prices and inflation to young voters.

“Pro-choice sentiments may drive [young voters] to the polls [but] economic challenges may either keep them away or even move some of them into the Republican column,” the article suggests.

A recent Kaiser poll reported that although the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling has motivated women and other key populations to vote Democrat in November, 74% of registered voters cited inflation and gas prices as “very important” to their midterm vote compared with 55% for abortion access.

All 435 seats are up for election in the House and 35 seats in the Senate in November. There are also 36 governorships up for election.

Democrats currently control the House with 220 seats to Republicans’ 211, meaning a shift of just five seats would transfer power to the GOP. Democrats also hold the Senate by a thin margin with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, for an edge of 51-50.