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Abortion bumped inflation to the back burner. Both sides see lessons for 2024

Nov. 13, 2022 Updated Sun., Nov. 13, 2022 at 9:33 a.m.

A demonstrator's sign outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, as oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson were being heard, on Nov. 30, 2021.   (DAMON WINTER)
A demonstrator's sign outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, as oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson were being heard, on Nov. 30, 2021.  (DAMON WINTER)
By Christine Vestal

The candidates and ballot measures that triumphed in the midterm elections prove that millions of voters are most energized by abortion access — not worries about inflation or crime.

It’s a lesson that both sides of the abortion debate will take into 2024.

In California, Michigan and Vermont, voters approved measures ensuring the right to abortion in state constitutions, and in Kentucky and Montana, voters rejected measures that would have curtailed that right.

Meanwhile, candidates who emphasized abortion rights in battleground states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, ran away with races that were expected to be much closer.

“For years, the polling has shown that Americans support abortion rights, but there have been very few places where that has been the direct question to voters,” said Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.

“Here you have five states across the political spectrum and in very different parts of the country with abortion-related measures on the ballot,” she said, “and it came out that the people really do support abortion rights, and they voted to ensure that access really is available.”

Anti-abortion advocates pointed to a dozen Republican governors who have signed anti-abortion legislation and won reelection by wide margins. But even they acknowledged that abortion-related ballot measures galvanized the other side in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel at Americans United for Life, which opposes abortion rights, said, “It’s absolutely clear that when abortion advocates bypassed legislators and governors and fought with ballot initiatives, they won. And they’re going to do more of it in 2024.”

The August primary election in conservative Kansas was a harbinger of the victories that abortion rights supporters celebrated last week. The midterm results in that state put an exclamation point on that earlier result. In that election, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment that would have conferred no right to abortion in the state constitution.

In this election, Sunflower State voters had a chance to rethink that decision. Five of the state’s seven Supreme Court justices, all considered likely to support abortion rights in the future, were up for a retention vote: Kansans decided to keep them.

“The results of these races are evidence that people are furious at the (U.S.) Supreme Court,” said David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “This issue is not going to go away, and it’s going to be front and center in elections for a long time.”

In gubernatorial races, Republicans who oppose abortion rights and have signed anti-abortion legislation cruised to reelection in 12 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

But in three closely watched governor’s races where abortion rights were a central issue — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Democrats prevailed.

In exit polls, 31% of midterm voters nationwide cited inflation as their top issue, compared with 27% who said it was abortion. However, 45% of Michigan voters pointed to abortion as the most important issue, higher than the percentage of voters who cited inflation. And in Pennsylvania, 36% of voters said abortion was their top issue, compared with 29% who said it was inflation.

Abortion also was a leading issue in the Arizona governor’s race between Democrat Katie Hobbs and Republican Kari Lake, where the outcome is not final but Hobbs holds a narrow lead.

In Michigan and Minnesota, where abortion is legal, Democrats gained control of both chambers of the legislature. With Democratic governors heading both states, that could mean an expansion of abortion access is in the offing.

And in North Carolina, one of only a few states in the South where abortion remains legal, Republicans gained state legislative seats but failed to reach a veto-proof supermajority. That means Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who supports abortion rights, will likely be able to maintain the status quo for his remaining two years in office.

But North Carolina voters also chose Republicans over Democrats in state Supreme Court races, flipping the Democratic-led court to GOP control for the first time since 2016. If the state’s current law permitting abortion until 20 weeks of pregnancy is challenged in court, the new panel would be less likely to uphold it.

And in Nebraska, where abortion is legal but difficult to access, Republicans won enough seats in the unique unicameral legislature to allow supporters of a 12-week abortion ban to move the proposal to the desk of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has said he supports it.

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