For months, the midterm elections appeared to be a clash over rising prices, public safety worries and fears of a looming recession.
But another driving issue proved almost as powerful for voters: abortion rights.
In the first major election since the Supreme Court overturned the case that ensured a federal right to an abortion for nearly half a century, abortion rights broke through, lifting Democrats to victory in Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan and New Mexico.
Voters in three states — California, Vermont and highly contested Michigan — decided to protect abortion rights in their state constitutions. In a fourth, Kentucky, a conservative bastion and home to Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, voters rejected an amendment saying their constitution gave no right to an abortion.
For decades, abortion politics worked a certain way, rallying the Republican base and abortion opponents with far more intensity than abortion rights supporters. Conservative evangelicals and Catholics often voted on abortion, or the future of the Supreme Court, even if it meant compromising other priorities.
But overturning Roe v. Wade appears to have flipped the script. In the months since the June decision, Democrats seized on the issue, linking abortion to everyday family economics and health care and tapping into voters’ fears about the rise of far-right Republicans. They wove the issue into broader Democratic messages that framed the election as a referendum on what they describe as Republicans’ “extreme” views, and not on President Biden and Democratic control in Washington.
“It was all tied together,” Representative Diana DeGette, the Colorado Democrat and longtime head of the Pro-Choice Caucus in the House, said on Wednesday morning. “It wasn’t like, here’s our wedge issue — abortion. People were thinking, ‘I’m worried about the economy. I’m worried about freedoms being taken away,’ and they were worried about democracy, too.”
The full impact of the message remains to seen. House and Senate races in the West were still unsettled on Wednesday, as vote counting continued, and control of the House and Senate was still hanging in the balance.
But the results so far signal the struggle ahead for Republicans, who leave this election divided on an issue that has long been a bedrock for the party. The socially conservative wing of the party remains determined to advance their cause, but they now face a Republican establishment more inclined to see debates over abortion restrictions as a political liability.
“The pro-life movement has to do better. The political element of the pro-life movement has to step up,” said Frank Cannon, longtime political strategist for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “Without that we are going to be in trouble.”
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Much remains uncertain. For the second Election Day in a row, election night ended without a clear winner. Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, takes a look at the state of the races for the House and Senate, and when we might know the outcome:
In Michigan, abortion rights pushed the party to victories in both chambers of the Legislature and re-elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, giving Democrats a trifecta of power in the state for the first time in 40 years. In Pennsylvania, the party won a Senate race and the governor’s mansion.
Exit polls conducted by the television networks and Edison Research showed that in Pennsylvania abortion overtook the economy as the top issue on voters’ minds, and in Michigan, nearly half of all voters said abortion was their top issue.
Those wins came after a tsunami of advertising nationwide. In total, Democrats spent nearly half a billion dollars on ads mentioning abortion, more than twice what they spent on the second-closest issue, crime, according to AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm.
As votes were counted, some Republicans acknowledged the damage the issue had done to their chances.
“If we lost because of abortion, an issue that was not on the ballot, if we lost because I’m pro-life, because I believe every life has dignity, I’m OK with that,” said Matt Birk, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Minnesota who lost on Tuesday, after coming under attack for comments over the summer about abortion and rape.
Republicans fought for decades to overturn Roe, but never had to reckon with what would happen if they actually did. Some in the party immediately recognized the moment of victory as a moment of vulnerability.
When Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, called to thank former President Donald J. Trump for three Supreme Court justices shortly after the ruling, he gave her a warning: “Pay attention, this could impact the midterms,” she recalled Mr. Trump saying.
Soon after the decision in June, Democratic Party committees invested in detailed polling, hoping to drill down on what exact messaging worked best. There was a clear conclusion: The most potent messaging for Democrats was to keep the conversation broad by casting Republicans as supporting a national ban on abortion, and avoid a discussion over the details about gestational week limits.
“Debating weeks is not where we want to be,” said Celinda Lake, the longtime Democratic pollster who conducted some of the surveys. “People are terrible at math and terrible at biology.”
Republican candidates found their own strategy: erase the most politically damaging stances and try to turn the tables. In strategy memos and private meetings, the party urged candidates to describe Democrats as the extremists, by claims their opponents support “abortion right up until birth.”
“Running away from the issue is a proven way to lose. Pro-life candidates who want a shot at winning need to go on offense and expose their opponents as having extreme views,” advised the R.N.C. in a messaging memo.
Outside of Washington, states were tossed into a new morass of laws and consequences for families, and the issue only gained momentum with Democratic voters. Debates over miscarriage care and exceptions for rape and incest played out in state legislatures.
In July, Gallup reported that abortion was considered the most important problem facing the country for the largest share of poll respondents since the organization started asking that question in 1984.
In August, even Planned Parenthood, the country’s biggest reproductive rights organization, was taken aback by the scale of a victory in a referendum in Kansas, the first major vote to test the potency of abortion politics since the ruling. The group’s internal polling showed a close race but voters rejected the amendment removing abortion rights protections from their State Constitution by 18 points — running up margins not only in swing suburban areas but rural counties.
Republicans, too, began shifting, hoping to muddy the waters around their positions to try and defang the potency of the issue.
Some candidates scrubbed their positions from their websites.
Others flip-flopped on their support for bans and tried to avoid the topic. Republican candidates in blue states went even further, running campaign ads where they pledged not to change abortion laws.
Social conservatives began fearing they were losing some political clout in the party. They redoubled their efforts in the Senate, urging Republicans to sponsor a 15-week abortion ban. Polling shows public opinion grows less supportive of abortion rights around the end of the first trimester.
When Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced the proposal in September, the blowback was immediate. It was clear the Senate leadership was not interested in rallying the members behind a national ban.
When Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, reached out to Mr. McConnell, hoping to get a meeting about advancing a ban, the response was terse. A text from a McConnell aide said the minority leader would be “too busy” for a meeting “for many weeks,” until after the election, she said.
“It was obvious they hoped if the a-word were never mentioned it wouldn’t be a problem,” she said. “I wanted to pick up my coffee table and throw it through the window of my 12-story building.”
By mid-October, facing persistently high inflation and a declining stock market, abortion began falling back down voters’ list of concerns. The shift was most notable among a key demographic group: women who identified as independent voters.
Some Democrats began de-emphasizing abortion in favor of labeling Republicans “economic extremists” or attacking them for wanting to remove funding for programs like Social Security or Medicare. High-profile liberals, including Senator Bernie Sanders, began openly calling for Democrats to step away from their focus on abortion in favor of a more focused economic message.
Other members argued that the shock was fading for some voters, but the anger remained. A number of Democrats and activists argued that voters connected abortion to economic issues because they understand the impact of a child on a women’s ability to work, family finances and health care.
“I did do an ad on choice,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, who won re-election in her suburban Michigan district by a six-point margin. “Never thought I’d do one in my life in a pro-life district. But I did do one ad on choice — but I did four on the economy.”
As results continued to roll in on Wednesday, social conservatives tried to find a silver lining. They noted the victories of candidates who support 15-week bans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Representative Ted Budd in North Carolina, who won his Senate race, and J.D. Vance in Ohio, the senator-elect.
They also made clear that these midterms were an opening salvo in a new war — both against Democrats and within their own party.
“There is no way someone can run in 2024 who isn’t for a federal limit,” Mr. Cannon said. “So the Republican messaging on this is going to have to change.”