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Red wave shrinks as abortion issue limits Republican prospects

Women and men in a crowded room raise their arms or clap in celebration.
At an election watch party in Overland Park, Kan., on Tuesday, people react to the news that a constitutional amendment that would have allowed a statewide abortion ban was defeated.
(David Kaup / AFP/Getty Images)

Six weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, ending a nationwide guarantee of abortion rights that had prevailed for half a century, the shock waves from that decision continue to roil U.S. politics, hampering Republican prospects.

Since the decision, Republicans have lost the advantage they had held since January in polls that ask voters which party they want to see in control of Congress. Numerous surveys over the last month have shown a slight Democratic edge on that question, including one by Monmouth University released Wednesday that showed registered voters favoring Democrats over Republicans 49% to 46%.

In races for the Senate and governorships in several key states, Democrats have taken leads and have also racked up large fundraising advantages.

Even President Biden‘s dismal job approval ratings have shown a small uptick.

Abortion is certainly not the only factor affecting the polls — gasoline prices have fallen steadily since mid-June, which may have eased worries about the economy; Democrats have made progress on long-stalled legislative goals, which may have rallied the party’s voters; and in some past elections, polling results on party control of Congress have drifted toward the president’s party in the summer, only to swing back in the fall.

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But there’s little question that the Supreme Court’s decision has played a significant role in reshaping the political landscape.

That was clear even before Tuesday’s referendum in Kansas in which a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have allowed lawmakers to ban abortions went down to a thumping defeat. The 18-percentage-point loss in a conservative state amid very heavy turnout surprised strategists in both parties and changed expectations for fall campaigns.

A reshaped campaign

“It is time to reevaluate the conventional wisdom about the midterms after this vote in Kansas,” Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said in a Twitter message after the vote. “I am begging pollsters and strategists to understand that passion is on the pro-choice side, and that one of the jobs of your candidate is to make abortion an issue.”

Voters rejected a measure that would have let GOP lawmakers restrict or outlaw abortion. Can abortion rights activists replicate the win beyond Kansas?

That task — making the issue central to voters’ decisions — will be key to whether Democrats can sustain whatever shift in the political wind they’re currently feeling.

The fact that people lopsidedly favored abortion rights in a referendum doesn’t mean that voters necessarily will choose Democratic candidates who favor abortion rights instead of antiabortion Republicans ones, noted Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, which has polled extensively on Americans’ views of abortion.

“When you’re asking people to vote up or down on a referendum, they’re voting only on that issue,” Jackson noted, and abortion rights have significant support across party lines. In Kansas, somewhere around 1 in 5 voters who took part in the Republican primary voted against the abortion amendment, the results indicate.

By contrast, in November, voters will be “faced with the choice of a Republican candidate or a Democratic candidate,” Jackson said. “Abortion is not the only issue they’ll be considering.”

As Schatz indicated, the task for Democrats will be to make as many races as they can look as close as they can to referendums on abortion rights.

Even if they succeed, few Republican voters will switch sides — partisans seldom do — but making the issue matter more could boost turnout, especially among younger Democrats, and win over swing voters.

A poll released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the share of voters who say abortion access is “very important” to how they will vote in November had risen 9 percentage points since before the Supreme Court decision. The increases were particularly notable among Democratic women (82%, up from 55%), and female voters younger than 50 (73%, up from 59%), the poll found.

Republicans hope to keep voters focused on the economy and express confidence that voters who disapprove of Biden’s presidency will swing back toward the GOP in the fall. In some states, they’ve also tried to portray themselves as open to compromise on abortion and paint their Democratic opponents as zealots in favor of abortion under any circumstances.

Kari Lake was a television news anchor in Phoenix for decades. Now, the Arizona gubernatorial candidate bashes the media as propagandists and uses her on-air savvy to rally Trump supporters.

Democrats, however, have an unheralded ally in portraying Republicans as the more extreme party on abortion — GOP primary voters.

Only a fairly small minority of voters support banning abortions in all cases. That minority, however, plays a big role in Republican primaries, and this year, the GOP has chosen candidates in several important states who would outlaw abortions with few, if any, exceptions.

In Michigan, for example, Tudor Dixon, who won Tuesday’s Republican primary for governor, said on a recent podcast that the hypothetical case of a 14-year-old rape victim pregnant as a result of incest was a “perfect example” of why she would ban nearly all abortions.

“A life is a life for me,” she said. Thursday, Democrats began airing an ad in Michigan featuring that and other statements by Dixon highlighting her desire to ban abortions, including one indicating she would not support an exception for the health of a pregnant person.

Her Democratic opponent, incumbent Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has made support for abortion rights a big part of her campaign. She’s asked the state’s Supreme Court to declare unenforceable a 1931 state law that bans abortions, and reproductive rights activists seem to have amassed enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would void that law and further protect access in the state, guaranteeing that the issue will be front and center for voters.

Whitmer is widely favored to win.

Democrats hope the abortion issue will also play a big role in the races for governor in Wisconsin, where incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is likely to have a close race, and Arizona, where Kari Lake, who won Tuesday’s primary, strongly opposes abortion. The Democratic candidate, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, supports abortion rights and highlighted that in her first general election campaign ad this week.

Both states, like Michigan, have Republican-dominated legislatures, allowing the Democratic candidates to argue that their veto pen would be the only sure defense for voters who favor abortion rights.

The issue may also spill over into the hotly contested Senate races in Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere. Although independent analysts continue to expect Republicans to win control of the House this fall, control of the Senate remains a toss-up.

Pennsylvania provides the clearest case of a state where the Republican candidates’ positions on a range of issues, including abortion, appear to be limiting their appeal to voters.

The Republican candidate for governor, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, has made banning abortion a centerpiece of his political career. He sponsored a bill that would ban abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy and opposes exceptions for cases of rape, incest or to protect a pregnant person’s life.

“No person with a beating heart, no matter how small, should be deprived of the fundamental right to life,” he said in a statement this spring, after the draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe became public.

His Democratic opponent, state Atty. Gen. Josh Shapiro, has repeatedly attacked Mastriano on the issue, as well as on the Republican’s support for President Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election. He’s warned that if Mastriano were to win, the state Legislature, which has a GOP majority, would probably try to ban abortions. Recent polls have shown Shapiro with a strong lead, including a Fox News poll that showed him leading 50% to 40%.

In the Senate race, the Democratic candidate, John Fetterman, has attacked his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, for opposing abortions without exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Like Mastriano, Oz is trailing in the race.

“If you were doing a thought experiment” about a midterm election in Pennsylvania with a president whose job approval is as low as President Biden’s is now, “the question you would probably ask is how far ahead the Republican candidate would be,” said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College.

“It’s a startling fact that the Democratic candidates for these statewide races have a clear lead at this point,” he said.

Democrats have aimed to portray the Republican candidates as “extreme,” Yost said. So far, the GOP hopefuls have “done nothing to combat that perception.”

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