Oswald Clark and Paul Tuns

When the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked on May 2, the politics of returning the abortion issue to the states and elected representatives predominated the media coverage of the momentous decision-to-be. Would overturning Roe, which discovered a right to abortion out of whole cloth, help Democrats in the midterm elections when the United States faced the highest inflation in a generation, record-breaking gasoline prices, and surging crime rates? Polling over the summer indicated that the Democrats received a post-Dobbs bump that closed the gap between the previously surging Republicans and the Democrats. As the season changed from summer to fall, Republicans were leading in generic polls and a number of leaning Democrat Senate and gubernatorial races became too close to call. Predictions of a red wave — Republicans winning the House of Representatives and Senate by large margins — were once again in vogue and even Democrat-friendly media were explaining why Republicans were poised to pick up at least 25 House seats in the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

The route to Republicans winning both house of Congress was easy. Democrats had a slim 220–212 majority in the House (three vacancies) and Republicans needed to flip just six Congressional Districts. The Senate was split evenly, 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties. The Republicans needed to win just one Senate seat to gain control. 

Historically, unpopular presidents typically lose a significant number of seats and during the Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump presidencies, the House of Representatives flipped to the opposing party. President Joe Biden was a drag on the party with a popularity was south of 40 per cent and every poll since June showing his disapproval rating floating between 55 and 59 per cent.

It took more than a week after election day to determine which party won control of the House and Senate, and the predicted red wave never materialized. As Politico reported, “House Democrats largely avoided the midterm rout they had feared.” Depending on the result of a run-off in Georgia, the Republicans could end up losing a Senate seat. In the House, they looked poised to win 221 seats once the final results were counted — just three more than is necessary for a majority. What happened? Was abortion on the ballot? Did it cost the predominantly pro-life Republican Party or help the predominantly pro-abortion Democrats?

The narrative

Pro-abortion Democrats and journalists were quick to credit a backlash against Dobbs for helping Democrats limit their losses. Hillary Clinton tweeted: “It turns out women enjoy having human rights, and we vote.” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote: It will take a while to sort out exactly why Republicans did so much worse than expected. But there seems little question that abortion was a big part of the story.”

A part of the story, but maybe not a big part. And abortion cuts both ways. In some places, it helps pro-abortion Democrats. In other places, it gives a boost to pro-life Republicans.

Political commentator Sean Trende tweeted, “The Dobbs theory is facially reasonable, but you have to explain DeWine vs Vance, or Kemp vs Walker, or Lombardo vs. Laxalt, or even Lake vs Masters (even if she narrowly loses). You have to explain an R+3-4 popular vote. Especially since govs have more impact on abortion policy.” In Twitter-speak, Trende was noting that a number of pro-life Republican Senate candidates lost, or won with smaller majorities, in states where pro-life Republican gubernatorial candidates won handily. And, as Trende noted, governors have more impact on abortion policy.

Trende offered another theory: “I do think inefficient vote distribution/coalitions shifts + bad Senate candidates is probably the more straightforward explanation. But we’ll obviously be debating this for some time to come.”

The fact is it is impossible to make broad generalizations. There were 435 Congressional elections, 35 Senate elections, and 36 gubernatorial races, each with its own unique candidates, issue sets, and voter profiles.

Turnout was the second highest for a midterm election since 1970, with more than 104 million voters. Republicans had about 3.5 million more votes for the House of Representatives in the aggregate, winning just under 51 per cent of the vote. Once the final votes are counted, the Republicans look poised to gain nine seats. All in all, not too shabby, but well below expectations. But with predictions of gaining 25-40 seats, something obviously went wrong. Pundits were quick to point to abortion as a pivotal issue in stanching the Democratic losses.

In the U.S., a number of media bodies poll voters as they leave the polling station in exit polls, to determine how groups of people voted and why. They provide a vital insight into why results ended up the way they did. Nationally, according to the CNN exit poll of 18,571 voters, inflation was cited as the most important issue by 31 per cent respondents compared to 27 per cent who said it was abortion. Both of those numbers are historically high for those issues, but with inflation higher than any time since the early 1980s and abortion being shoved front and centre by the Supreme Court, that makes sense. But not everyone who voted on the abortion issue necessarily cast their vote for Democrats, as the sloppy media narrative suggests. According to CNN’s national exit poll, 53 per cent of respondents said they trust Democrats “more to handle abortion,” compared to 47 per cent who said Republicans. That is among all voters, not just those who cite abortion as important. It is possible that pro-abortion voters were more likely to base their votes on the abortion issue, but it is reasonable to believe that a significant portion of voters supported pro-life candidates, too. In fact, CNN’s exit poll found that 37 per cent of respondents were “enthusiastic” or “satisfied” with Roe being overturned, compared to 21 per cent who were dissatisfied and 39 per cent who were angry. Interestingly, Republicans won 51 per cent of those who were dissatisfied. Republicans won 95 per cent of those who were enthusiastic and 81 per cent of those who were satisfied, while Democrats won 85 per cent of those who were angry. What these numbers strongly suggest is that there was probably a one to two percentage point advantage for pro-abortion Democrats running against pro-life Republicans. With a surprisingly large number of extremely close races, it is possible that being pro-abortion helped tip several Senate races (especially) to the Democrats.

The problem with that analysis, however, is that pro-life governors won or did relatively better than the Senate candidate in those states. Brian Kemp (R) was re-elected governor of Georgia with a comfortable 53 per cent against Stacy Abram after narrowly defeating her in 2018. Meanwhile, Donald Trump-backed pro-life Republican Herschel Walker was behind incumbent pro-abortion Democrat Raphael Warnock, 48.5 per cent to 49.4; the two will face-off in a run-off election in December because Georgia requires the winning candidate to have 50 per cent plus one. Walker was a poor candidate and was facing several allegations that he coerced or paid for abortions for several ex-girlfriends. Walker’s loss certainly had more to do with “candidate quality” than being pro-life — not to mention that he was obviously a compromised candidate for pro-life voters.

In Nevada, Republican Joe Lombardo beat Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak, 48.8 per cent to 47.4, but Lombardo changed his tune on abortion several times over the past eight months and says he will agree with whatever the voters of the state want. Meanwhile, the more solidly pro-life Republican candidate for Senate, Adam Laxalt, narrowly lost to Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D), 48.9 per cent to 48 per cent. Exit polls suggest that the Democrats had a slight advantage because of their pro-abortion views, but it only helped get one of them elected.

In New Hampshire, a popular Republican Governor, Chris Sununu, was easily re-elected. He recently signed into law a 24-week abortion ban and said he would not seek to restrict abortion any further. Retired Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc, a pro-life Republican who supports a complete ban on abortion, lost to incumbent Senator Maggie Hassan, 44 to 54 per cent. Bolduc came out against a compromise bill put forward by Senator Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.), a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks. Hassan ran ads against Bolduc’s supposed pro-life extremism in opposing Graham’s bill. In New Hampshire, 35 per cent of voters said abortion was the most important issue, compared to 36 per cent who said inflation. Bolduc, who was endorsed by Donald Trump and questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, certainly did not lose by ten percentage points solely because he was pro-life.

In Pennsylvania, a swing state where Republicans hoped to keep their Senate seat and pick up the governorship and state legislatures, the Republicans got routed in the governor’s race and Democrat John Fetterman beat Republican Mehmet Oz by nearly a quarter million votes. Fetterman was limited in campaigning after suffering a stroke in the spring. Oz narrowed Fetterman’s lead throughout the campaign but came up short. Oz, a television personality and doctor, has said he supported “abortion rights” in the past and refused to say when he thought life began when he was running for the Republican nomination. In August, he updated his campaign website to say he knew life begins at conception and claimed it was always his position, and that it is wrong to kill preborn babies except in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. But he muddied the waters further in October when he said that the federal government should stay out of the abortion issue and let states restrict it. The Dobbs decision allows states to restrict or regulate abortion, but does not negate the possibility of a federal law. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser said Oz’s unclear position cost him votes.

Dannenfelser said that unambiguously pro-life candidates won without difficulty. She said there is a tried-and-true playbook for electoral success for pro-life candidates: “Define who you are, define who they are, exploit that contrast, it works every time.” She said too many Republicans were pretending that abortion was not an issue and that many of those who ignored abortion paid a political price.

Pro-life governors

Every pro-life Republican governor who signed an abortion ban — whether it was a total ban or a ban on abortion after a heartbeat could be detected — was elected, and comfortably so: Ron DeSantis (Florida), Greg Abbott (Texas), Brian Kemp (Georgia), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Kevin Stitt (Oklahoma), Kim Reynolds (Iowa), Kay Ivey (Alabama), Kristi Noem (South Dakota), Henry McMaster (South Carolina), Bill Lee (Tennessee), Brad Little (Idaho), Mark Gordon (Wyoming). Their average margin of victory was 25.75 per cent. DeSantis who won narrowly in 2018, beat Chris Crist by nearly 1.5 million votes. The governors’ races are extremely important in the post-Roe era as most restrictions on abortion will be legislated at the state level.

Lee Zeldin, a solid pro-life Republican in New York state, made the governor’s race close by running on crime and pro-life. He lost by 300,000 votes out 5.7 million cast, an incredibly close election for the Empire State. His six per centage point loss is half as much as any Republican has had in the last four gubernatorial elections. Pro-abortion Governor Kathy Hochul (D) made abortion a central issue of her campaign but it is difficult to see how running on expanding abortion was an election winner for her.

In Michigan, pro-abortion Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) handily defeated pro-life Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, by 12 percentage points or a half million votes. Whitmer attacked Dixon for her pro-life stand and voters also passed a pro-abortion measure that was on the ballot. Perhaps no state was more convulsed by abortion politics than Michigan and according to the CNN exit poll, Democrats carried 69 per cent of Michigan voters who said abortion should be legal in most cases — a “middle ground” that seems to favour pro-abortion Democrats at the moment. About one in three respondents said abortion should be legal in all cases and another third said it should be legal in most cases. Only a quarter of people said abortion should be illegal in most cases and one in ten said abortion should always be banned. Yet, even one in nine voters who said that abortion should be illegal in most cases voted Democrat.

Local races

The red wave not only failed at the federal level, but never cascaded over the legislative chambers in the states, either, despite Republican optimism and historical precedent for the party that doesn’t hold the presidency making large gains in the president’s first term. On Nov. 8, 88 of 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature) were up for election in 46 states. In total, 6,278 of the country’s legislative seats were up for grabs. Going into the elections, the Democrats controlled 36 chambers and Republicans controlled 62. (There is a power-sharing agreement in the Alaska House.) Democrats gained control of four chambers, with the outcomes of the Alaska Senate, Alaska House, and New Hampshire House still undecided when The Interim went to press.

Democrats won the Pennsylvania House and Michigan House and Senate chambers. In Michigan, the Republicans have controlled the state House since 2016 and state Senate since 1983, which was the last time the Democrats controlled both chambers of the state legislature and the governor – the so-called trifecta of power. Across the state, Democrats won 50 per cent of the state Senate vote and came away with a narrow 20-18 majority in the state Senate, while statewide they won 51 per cent of the state House votes and had an equally narrow 56-54 in the state House. That is about as close as evenly divided as a state can be.

Exit polling showed that abortion was the most important issue when casting ballots in statewide elections for governor (Michigan) or governor and senator (Pennsylvania), and that for such people, there was a slight break in favour of pro-abortion candidates. Although there is not data suggesting such voters prioritized abortion for state representatives, it seems likely that Democrats won these battleground chambers because of their pro-abortion positions.

In Minnesota, Democrats already controlled the governor’s office and state House, but after flipping enough state Senate seats, they now control the “trifecta” and easily pass whatever laws they want. Pro-abortion Democrats in the state said codifying abortion will be a priority in 2023 and pro-life Republicans do not have the numbers to stop them. In Maryland, pro-abortion Democrat Wes Moore easily won, replacing pro-life Republican Governor Larry Hogan who did not run for re-election. With Democrats controlling the state House and Senate, Moore said a priority would be passing pro-abortion legislation. Elizabeth Nash, who monitors state-level government for the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion research outfit, said that expanding abortion in Maryland is important given it is near jurisdictions like West Virginia that have outlawed abortion.

Republicans were expected to win a “super majority” in both the North Carolina House and Senate, in which case they could override the veto of pro-abortion Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. While they won two-thirds of the state Senate seats, they were one seat short in the state House. Pro-life Republicans had planned to pass an abortion ban and override the governor’s veto, which now seems unlikely. The same thing occurred in Wisconsin, where Republicans gained a supermajority in the state Senate but not the state House, meaning they cannot override pro-abortion Governor Tony Evers when he wields the veto pen. Evers was narrowly re-elected.

In Oregon, the breakthrough for Republicans never occurred – and was fanciful anyway in this deep blue state — but a state referendum ballot passed that prevents state legislators from walking out during debates in order to prevent votes. The tactic was used by Republicans to block several Democrat bills and it seems likely pro-abortion Democrats will pass anti-free speech bubble zones or other punitive measures against pro-lifers now that Republicans can not resort to such tactics.

It was not all bad news for pro-lifers at the state level. In Arizona, pro-abortion Democrats won statewide races — Senator Mark Kelly beating challenger Blake Masters and picking up the governorship when Katie Hobbs edged by Kari Lake by six-tenths of a percentage point, or about 30,000 votes — but the Republicans also maintained their majorities in the Arizona House and Senate. It is noteworthy that the state legislature that passed a personhood law outlawing abortion earlier this year was largely returned intact, in a state with some of the closest races for governor and senator in the country.

In states like Texas, the pro-life majorities in the state chambers increased. Not only did the pro-life Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who all supported the Texas Heartbeat Act and Human Life Protection Act that protects the preborn from conception, get re-elected, so did every state legislator who voted for them. Not only that, but pro-life Republicans flipped at least two seats formerly held by pro-abortion Democrats. Kim Schwartz of Texas Right to Life said, “Unlimited abortion proved to not be the winning issue that anti-Life Democrats counted on it to be, and this allowed the GOP to secure some pivotal races across the state.” Meanwhile, four Texas cities with Sanctuary City for the Unborn propositions on the ballot voted to protect preborn human life: Abilene, Athens, Plainview, and San Angelo. Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said the return of the pro-life Congressional delegation, the increase in pro-life state legislators, and Sanctuary City successes illustrated Texans’ commitment to protecting human life at every level of government.

In Nebraska, pro-life efforts have fallen short because pro-abortion Democrats had the votes to sustain a filibuster. But pro-life Republicans won a filibuster-proof supermajority in their legislature. Nebraskans elected a new Republican governor, Jim Pillen, who says that protecting the preborn is a “moral and economic imperative” for the state and has called for abortion to be outlawed. He described the death toll of 220,000 Nebraska babies through abortion as “a slaughter” that needed to be stopped. Nebraska had been one of the few red states not to implement some sort of abortion ban.

Still, nationwide, pro-lifers must be disappointed. Since 1900, the president’s party has only gained state legislative seats twice: 1934 in the midst of a Depression and 2002 after 9/11. Since 1922, Democratic presidents have lost an average of 388 state legislative seats in their first midterm election and Republicans presidents have averaged a loss of 345. Those trends have become more pronounced recently, with Democrats losing 702 state seats in 2010 under Barack Obama and 488 in 1994 under Bill Clinton. While final numbers were not available when The Interim went to press, it seems that Democrats picked up several state chambers and could have a net gain of state legislators – or at worst, a marginal decline in seats — which will have an impact on state regulation or restrictions on abortion.

Abortion referenda

Several states had “abortion on the ballot” in referenda. Vermont and California amended their constitutions to protect abortion. The California amendment passed with fully two-thirds of 10 million voters supporting adding reproductive freedom, including abortion and contraception, to their constitution. An even larger percentage of Vermont voters backed making abortion a constitutional right, with 76 per cent approving Proposal 5, or 212,323 voters, compared to just 64,239 who did not. Vermont and California are pretty liberal states so those results were not surprising. Pro-lifers were hopeful that they would defeat a constitutional amendment to create a right to reproductive freedom including “about all matters relating to pregnancy.” Proposal 3, as the amendment was called, passed handily with nearly 2.5 million votes to 1.9 opposed. The 57-43 margin exceeded the margin of victory of the state’s pro-abortion governor.

But it was the defeat of two pro-life initiatives in predominantly Republican states that had pro-lifers smarting. In Kentucky, Constitutional Amendment 2 would have stated that there is no right to abortion or any requirement to fund abortion in the State Constitution. It was narrowly defeated 52-48 per cent. Kentucky re-elected their pro-life senator, Rand Paul with nearly 62 per cent of the vote. 

In Montana, Legislative Referendum 131, born-alive infants protection law, was defeated 52.6 per cent to 47.4. The measure would enact a law making any infant born alive at any gestational age a legal person. Federal statute already offers such a protection and pro-abortion groups in the state argued the legislative initiative was superfluous and the medical establishment came out against it saying it could limit palliative care for infants born with serious complications. Bioethics expert Wesley Smith wrote in National Review Online, “Those falsehoods opened the door to blatant fear mongering.”

Pro-abortion losses

While there was plenty of commentary about abortion hurting Republicans, there has been scant attention given to several pro-abortion Democratic Senate candidates that pro-abortion advocates supported with massive ad buys but to no avail. Val Demings in Florida and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin failed to knock off incumbent pro-life Republican Senators Marco Rubio (Florida) and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), and Cheri Beasley was unable to win the open seat in North Carolina against Ted Budd. Exit polls showed that abortion was dwarfed by inflation as the top issue and that among people who voted on abortion, it was roughly evenly split between pro-abortion Democrats and pro-life Republicans. The contests in North Carolina and Wisconsin were close enough — within three percentage points — that a greater lean toward the pro-abortion position among the electorate would have tipped the results. But fear-mongering over abortion by Democrats did them no favours. 

Numerous House races were fought on abortion, too. In Iowa, the incumbent Democrat Cindy Axne ran on support for a national bill legalizing abortion for all nine months of pregnancy. She lost to pro-life Republican Zach Nunn. In Virginia, Democratic incumbent Elaine Luria spent millions on pro-abortion ads against pro-life nurse Jen Kiggans, the Republican candidate. Kiggans won by about 10,000 votes out of 300,000 cast.

David Harsanyi noted “that every Republican loss is chalked up to abortion by the media (but) the reverse is not.” So, there were no stories about how Axne and Luria lost because of abortion.

Who voted and why?

A narrative about the midterms is that women turned out in droves to vote to keep abortion legal. The problem with this narrative is that it is wrong on both counts. Women made up 52 per cent of the midterm electorate — the same percentage as the 2018 midterms. And compared to four years ago, the Democratic advantage among women shrank, from a 19-point gap to an 8-point gap. And women do not vote as a block. The Hill reported: “But women, as a group, conferred only a small advantage to the Democrats. Republican House candidates nationwide netted more votes from white women, older women, married women, Southern women, rural women and middle- to upper-income women, with earning between $50,000 and $100,000.” Numerous surveys and exit polls show that the only significant gender gap advantage for Democrats is among single women or women in their 20s. The CNN exit poll found that 72 per cent of women under 30 voted Democrat (compared to 54 per cent of young men), although the Associated Press exit poll found a slightly lower percentage of young women (58) voting Democrat. David Harsanyi wrote in The Federalist: “Unmarried women might now be Democrats’ most reliable demographic, but they were already headed in that direction.”

Marriage is a more important factor than sex when it comes to voting. Going by the CNN exit poll, Republicans had a 60-40 advantage among married men and 57-43 advantage among married women. Unmarried men broke for Republicans 53-46 but Democrats has a whopping 68-31 advantage among unmarried women.

Nationally, Democrats won self-declared moderate voters, suburban voters and middle-income voters — precisely the voters that swing elections. These voters generally listed inflation as the most important issue facing the U.S., not abortion. Yet, granular data from the states finds that the story is not so clear cut. Voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan prioritized abortion, whereas voters in Ohio and Florida prioritized economic issues. And a voter’s abortion views do not necessarily dictate for whom they will vote; according to the Associated Press national exit polls, among voters who said abortion should be legal, fully a quarter of them voted for Republicans (admittedly, not all of them are pro-life). Many voters have an opinion about the issue that does not determine how they will vote.

What’s next?

The more data we view, the less clear the picture becomes if we try to analyze the election as a single event. But each election is its own story. Every Senate, House, and governor campaign is a unique event that betrays straightforward narrative. On balance, abortion did not seem to hurt pro-life Republicans, especially incumbent governors. It becomes a little trickier to say anything definitive about the effect the Dobbs decision had on the election. It is hard to disentangle candidate quality, the cloud that Donald Trump and “January 6” had over the campaign, and numerous other issues that affect voter decisions. Republican candidates labeled “election deniers” by the media – candidates who supported Trump’s “stop-the-steal” narrative – did worse in close elections than those who ignored the 2020 election. Many Trump-supported candidates who wanted to continue litigating the 2020 presidential election were also pro-life, but the exit polling suggested it was the former rather than latter that turned off many swing voters. Several conservative commentators noted that given the choice between Democratic incompetence and Republican craziness, voters chose incompetence. Viewed through that binary, at least some did.

What is clear is that pro-life Republicans have their work cut out for them at the national level. President Joe Biden has said one of his priorities for the new Congress in January will be to codify Roe — a federal bill guaranteeing abortion for all nine months, paid for by taxpayer dollars. There are enough Republicans in the Senate to ensure Democrats do not have 60 votes for cloture to get a vote on it in at least one side of Congress, but nothing can be taken for granted. Too many Republicans seemed to want to pretend that abortion was not an issue following Dobbs. It is clear, from the Democrats abortion stridency, that it is not going away.

For those partisans upset with the results, David Harsanyi put the disappointing Republican gains in the House and failure to win the Senate in perspective: “Even if the left’s tenuous claim that Dobbs saved them in 2022 is to be believed, the price for ridding the nation of the legal and moral abomination of Roe would be well worth it.”