How abortion rights are upending the US midterm elections

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Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat representing a swing congressional district in the heart of Michigan, can remember the moment when abortion rights burst into the picture for the November midterm elections.

It was early May, and news had just leaked of the Supreme Court’s intention to strike down the half-century-old Roe vs Wade legal precedent, rescinding the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy in America.

Slotkin was on a flight from Detroit to Washington, she recalls, and two Republican women started a conversation to lament the decision, which was confirmed the following month in a ruling in the case of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health.

“Both said, I could never have an abortion but I would have never walked in another woman’s shoes and wouldn’t tell another woman what to do,” Slotkin says, in a September interview at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American place of worship on the south side of Lansing, Michigan’s capital. “And that was followed by just so many women pulling me aside at events and basically saying similar things, that, ‘look . . . this is too much’.”

Slotkin is far from a progressive social warrior. A 46-year-old former CIA analyst and Pentagon official turned lawmaker, she has centred her four years on Capitol Hill — and her latest campaign — on her expertise in national security and veterans’ affairs, as well as kitchen-table matters like the economy and manufacturing jobs.

Aside from her encounters with women willing to share their stories and fears about waning access to reproductive health, Slotkin says the issue of abortion began “animating the race” in other tangible ways.

It was “dominating doors” as volunteers knocked on people’s homes during canvassing operations, she says, and has driven a surge of voter registrations at Michigan State University among students in her district.

Meanwhile, Tom Barrett, her Republican challenger, was suddenly on the defensive heading into the final stretch of the campaign, because of his support for strict curbs on abortion.

Congressman James E Clyburn, left, and congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, right, pose for photos with community members at New Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan © Ali Lapetina/FT

“It has just become a topic that even if you didn’t want to talk about it, you can’t avoid it. And that’s what’s going on for my opponent and every other Republican on the ticket,” Slotkin says. “They’re backed into a total corner, because this keeps coming up. It won’t go away.”

With six weeks to go before Americans head to the polls to elect every seat in the House of Representatives and around one-third of the Senate, the outcome of the midterm elections is far less predictable, partly due to the backlash against the Dobbs ruling.

Republicans, who had been on course to comfortably win back control of the House due to anger over inflation and disenchantment with US president Joe Biden, now face a far tougher fight. Political forecasters including the influential Cook Political Report say they are still likely to prevail, but with only a slim majority.

In the Senate, however, Democrats have fresh hopes they can hold on to their majority, after Republican primary voters selected an array of candidates loyal to former President Donald Trump as their nominees in key races stretching from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Georgia and Arizona.

The generic congressional polling average assembled by the Financial Times, which showed Republicans with a 3.4 percentage point advantage on the eve of the May leak, now gives Democrats an edge of 1.7 percentage points.

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Democrats have also won a streak of electoral victories in the aftermath of Dobbs, including special elections for House races in New York’s Hudson Valley and Alaska, showing much stronger enthusiasm than expected for their candidates.

Overall, Biden and his party are facing the midterms with greater confidence that they can avoid the resounding electoral defeats experienced during the first terms in office of two of his Democratic predecessors: Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010.

The improved picture for Democrats could easily be reversed if petrol prices start climbing again after gradually dropping over the course of the summer, or if voters begin paying more attention to other issues where Republicans have the upper hand, such as immigration across the southern border. “This election is going to be tight — very tight,” Biden said during a fundraising event in New York this week.

But the reversal of Roe vs Wade has handed the equivalent of political gold to the Democrats at this stage in the US electoral cycle: it should motivate the party’s base and supporters to register and turn out heavily on election day. A CBS poll published on September 25 found that 71 percent of women voters say a candidate must agree with them on abortion to get their vote. Among Democratic women, it is the top issue.

“What the decision did was put in very stark terms, what the consequences of not voting means for Democrats,” says Lara Brown, a political scientist and president of the New Center, a bipartisan policy think-tank in Washington.

“Fundamentally, Democrats and Democratic women in particular feel mobilised around the idea that they have had this choice for 50 years and now, because of that ruling, that choice is determined by their state laws,” she says. “And many women are living in states where they no longer have a choice.”

The debate in the Great Lakes state

Michigan has emerged as a crucible of the political debate surrounding reproductive rights in America this year because abortion is actually separately on the ballot in the state. If voters approve what is known as Proposal 3, which is backed by Democrats in the state, the right to an abortion would be enshrined in the state’s constitution.

This would over-rule an archaic state law from 1931 criminalising abortion in most cases, including rape and incest, with the only exception being to preserve the life of the mother. While Roe’s constitutional protection for abortion was in effect, the restrictions were never enforced. But the ruling has paved the way for its possible implementation and prosecutions to begin, leaving many women in the state as well as the medical community in limbo.

“We already have people coming in and asking ‘where are the Prop 3 yard signs? I want the Prop 3 yard signs,’” says Judy Daubenmier, the Democratic party chair in Livingston county, a conservative part of Slotkin’s district. “A lot of times people here are kind of reluctant to put out yard signs because of the backlash from Maga neighbours,” she says, referring to ardent pro-Trump supporters. “But they want those.”

The vote on a specific measure regarding abortion is expected to drive turnout and affect races up and down the ballot, including those for Congress, state governor, and the state legislature. A similar proposal in deeply conservative Kansas in July resulted in a resounding victory for proponents of abortion rights.

Sarah Anthony, a Democratic state legislator, sits outside a shopfront with a coffee carton in hand
Sarah Anthony, a Democratic state legislator based in Lansing who is running for a state senate seat, says she is seeing interest and support for protecting abortion rights from a variety of constituencies © Ali Lapetina/FT

Sarah Anthony, a Democratic state legislator based in Lansing who is running for a state senate seat, says she is seeing interest and support for protecting abortion rights from a variety of constituencies, from deeply conservative rural towns in the area to black churches where it was previously taboo.

Voters are now demanding more than a “squishy answer” on abortion rights, she says. “They not only want to know where you are [on the issue], but they want to know what you’re doing to ensure that the ballot proposal passes,” she said.

Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of the state, has made the protection of abortion rights a leitmotif of her own re-election campaign, as she tries to overcome a challenge from Trump-backed Republican Tudor Dixon. The conservative media personality is unreservedly anti-abortion. “A life is a life for me. That’s how it is,” Dixon told Heartland Signal, a radio station, in July.

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While Whitmer is backed by many of the pro-abortion rights groups in the state and nationally, Dixon is being supported by an array of an anti-abortion advocates and donors, including the deep-pocketed DeVos family. However, polling suggests Whitmer is a favourite.

“The governor’s race is all about women, especially college-educated white women, because they are such swing votes,” says one female Republican executive in Michigan who declined to be named. “It’s gonna drive women to the polls. And that’s what Whitmer needs.”

In Slotkin’s race, the House majority political action committee, a group promoting Democratic candidates for Congress, has already released a digital ad attacking Barrett for supporting the 1931 law, to try to portray him as extreme on the issue.

Like several Republicans in close races for Congress this year, Barrett has tried to distance himself from the most radical positions on abortion, quietly editing his website to tone down his language on reproductive rights. His team declined to comment on this story, though told the Washington Post it had made “revisions” in order to highlight Slotkin’s beliefs on the issue.

Two women sign the register on  a desk at a church in Lansing
Residents sign in at New Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Lansing, for a ‘community conversation’ with congressman Clyburn and congresswoman Slotkin © Ali Lapetina/FT

But Slotkin says the pivot is unlikely to fly. “You don’t have to explain to the average woman in this district in mid-Michigan who [in this race] is pro-choice and who is pro-life. It’s baked in,” she says. She notes the irony that Republicans have historically mobilised voters around social issues such as abortion, but now find themselves on the opposite side of it. “They’re the dog that caught the car — they have no idea what to do.”

Earlier this month, Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, made life more difficult for his party’s candidates by proposing a sweeping national abortion ban above 15 weeks of gestation and criminal penalties on doctors performing the procedure.

The proposal was all but dismissed by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, but seemed to confirm Democratic fears that the party wanted to move even beyond the Supreme Court decision to restrict abortion across the nation, even in states that want to keep it available.

Graham’s plan instantly became a feature of Democratic stump speeches and social media posts — though he has defended it. “I’m pro-life, even in an election year. And to those who suggest that being pro-life is losing politics, I reject that,” he told Fox News.

‘Which way is it going to go?’

Whether the backlash to the abortion ruling will translate into enough votes for Democrats to meaningfully change the outcome of tough midterm elections remains in question. John Truscott, a Republican political and communications consultant in Michigan, says the GOP has been caught “flat-footed” by the ruling but the impact may not be as large as Democrats now hope.

“I think people who vote on abortion, they know who they are and that’s going to be an issue, and that’s a certain percentage that will always be there. But I do think the economic issues are going to creep back in, with an interest rate hike and all of these things in the final weeks,” he says.

One man in his mid-thirties who typically votes Republican, walking along the main road in Brighton, a town halfway between Lansing and Detroit, was confident that his party would still win easily and abortion wouldn’t be much of a factor. “I’m assuming everything’s going to be red based on how the past couple of years have gone — but again I am red, so I mostly follow red,” he says.

Anti-abortion supporters gather on the front steps of the state Capitol during the Pennsylvania March for Life rally in Harrisburg this week
Anti-abortion supporters gather on the front steps of the state Capitol during the Pennsylvania March for Life rally in Harrisburg this week © Marc Levy/AP

For Democratic officials and politicians on the ground, the bottom line is that much of the mobilisation they are seeing is based on dread — often felt very personally — about the consequences of the overturning of Roe vs Wade. “We knew it was coming. They said they were gonna do it, but yet when it happened, it was like cold water in the face,” says Daubenmier. “It was real now — it wasn’t just somebody crying wolf or anything like that. It was now real. And I think it scared people,” she says.

Sitting at a table outside the local coffee house with her laptop studying for a statistics exam, Anna Targett, a 21-year-old student at the University of Michigan, says abortion rights had “definitely” made her and her friends more likely to vote in November. “It frustrates us all and makes us feel less like people — equal people . . . the people I surround myself with are all very passionate about this.”

Brown, of the New Center think-tank, believes both Republicans and Democrats can now be expected to turn out their voters in high numbers, making the result especially uncertain. “Republicans are turning out because of inflation and crime and immigration,” she says. “Democrats are turning out because of abortion, and the threat to democracy.”

An EPIC-MRA poll of likely voters in Michigan this month found that 24 per cent cited “addressing abortion laws” as a top problem, matching the share of voters worried about “controlling inflation and high prices”.

“We’re essentially seeing two waves,” Brown adds, “a wave of red voters and a wave of blue voters who are both being animated by separate issues and are both operating to a certain degree in their information and partisan bubbles.

“The real question is going to be what happens when these two waves hit, which way is it going to go?”

Source: Financial Times

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