Republicans misjudged the power of abortion rights


After the expected red wave appears to have been little more than a red ripple, are there any centrist pundits who will renew their calls for a federal compromise on abortion? Before the election, I saw trial after trial preemptively castigate Democrats for being too focused on this supposedly fringe women’s issue. Certainly, talking so much about wombs would lead them down the primrose path to electoral defeat.

While it would be simplistic to argue that abortion concerns were the sole driver of strong Democratic turnout in Tuesday’s midterm elections – weak Republican candidates and their lack of any specific economic plan other than “don’t not be Joe Biden” also deserves a lot of blame – it seems clear that fears of a post-Roe rollback of reproductive rights were a deciding factor. According to early exit polls, abortion was the number one concern of Democratic voters; in Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman won a surprise victory to snatch a Senate seat from Republicans, 36% of voters said abortion was their biggest issue, compared to 29% who cited inflation. Turnout was high, especially for a mid-term.

Take a look at Michigan, where voters just changed their state constitution to protect abortion rights. The state memorably chose Donald Trump in 2016, but voters swept the ruling Democrats back into the state legislature on Tuesday. Governor Gretchen Whitmer – facing anti-Covid protesters and threatened by kidnappers in 2020 – was also easily re-elected after campaigning aggressively on reproductive rights. She had good reason to keep the issue front and center: Michigan has a “zombie law,” a 1931 abortion ban still in effect. It is unclear to what extent these laws are enforceable, but there is little doubt that the law has made the referendum much more than symbolic.

In purple Montana and even comfortably red Kentucky, voters rejected ballot measures that would have curtailed reproductive rights. It turns out that even many Republicans don’t want to change their state’s constitution to allow forced births (Kentucky) or prevent doctors from providing palliative care to dying newborns (Montana).

In North Carolina, voters elected enough Democrats to the state legislature to avoid giving Republicans a supermajority — something local GOP leaders wanted to push through a six-week abortion ban on the veto by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.

And yes, abortion also made it onto the ballots in blue stalwarts like California and Vermont. Although these states consistently vote Democratic in presidential elections, it should be remembered that they are not always progressive on all social issues; Vermont’s gun laws allow anyone to carry a gun without a license or permit, and it’s the only New England state that doesn’t require guns to be stored securely. In California, residents of deeply liberal San Francisco recalled their super-progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, earlier this year.

Abortion, it seems, is not easily analogous to other political topics. This is a deeply personal matter that many Americans have already made up their minds about. Since about 1 in 3 women have had an abortion, it is also a problem that many people have personal experience with, either firsthand or through a friend or relative. Inflation may be a major concern, but even economists disagree on how to solve it. Crime is a problem that everyone deplores but for which the solutions are not simple. In comparison, abortion is quite simple and quite relatable.

To be clear, since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, voters haven’t said they want to expand reproductive rights; they just acted to protect the status quo. Sometimes professional policy pundits seem to forget that Roe himself was a compromise, allowing restrictions on abortion, especially after the first trimester. This compromise was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in the 1992 Casey decision, which allowed many restrictions on first-trimester abortion as long as they did not cause “undue burden” – a judgment still in the eye of the beholder. .

Even before the Dobbs decision allowed states to criminalize abortion care, a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy could face many hurdles, from having the cost of an abortion covered to hours travel to a clinic; from legally required waiting periods to intrusive transvaginal ultrasounds. Americans don’t necessarily say they want them repealed; wait times remain popular in opinion polls. But they seem to think that these burdens are enough.

Abortion isn’t a magic word for Democrats — in a statewide race where abortion rights aren’t under threat, the question is likely of limited use. For example, Kathy Hochul, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for New York, talked a lot about it and faced a tough race even in a very blue state.

The question now for Democrats is how to play this in 2024. What would happen in a state like Texas if voters had the option to repeal that state’s abortion ban? What would happen in Georgia if voters had the chance to repeal its six-week ban? Would Democrats improve their chances in those states if they gave voters the option to repeal those bans altogether, or if they offered a middle ground — protecting first-trimester abortion, when some 93% of abortions occur ? Or would offering a compromise only demoralize their base and their donors?

Republicans must also consider the changing landscape. The message at the federal level is clearer than ever: don’t seek a national abortion ban. And at the state level, maybe try blocking other abortion ballot initiatives. But of course, Republicans have their own base to appease, and voters identified with the Christian Right who hold their noses and support candidates like Trump and Herschel Walker will be paying attention.

As the next election cycle approaches, politicians and pundits in both parties should remember that Americans support legal abortion, especially in the first trimester. Faced with the reality of being denied necessary medical care or being forced by the state to raise more children than you can afford, voters push back.

Yes, there are still people who think abortion should be a crime. Or, as one voter in Kentucky put it yesterday, that “life, once sown, shall grow like a garden.” But for many voters, losing Roe changed how those metaphors land. Simply put: women are not dirt.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was Ideas and Commentary Editor at Barron’s and Managing Editor of Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”

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