As pivotal midterm elections draw near, campaign trajectories upended by Roe v. Wade

·5 min read

WASHINGTON — What a difference a day makes — especially a day like June 24, 2022.

With the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court repealed nearly 50 years of abortion rights in the United States. Three months later, that decision appears to be reshaping the trajectory of the 2022 midterm elections.

"I'm a young woman — one of the few women of reproductive age in Congress — and so for me, this decision is very personal," Rep. Sara Jacobs said amid a roiling crowd of protesters in an interview that day.

Five conservative justices took a distant, abstract worry and made it urgent and tangible, the California Democrat said, triggering a sea change sure to have lasting political and social repercussions across the country.

"Now it's very real and we're seeing very clearly what the Supreme Court just did … we'll be able to change some minds and get some things done."

Maybe, as it turns out, more than she knew at the time: Democrats, once braced for a November bloodletting, have found new life in the weeks and months that followed the court's seismic reversal.

Even after a draft of the decision was leaked in May, there were few signs that abortion rights would be much of an election issue, said Alesha Doan, a professor of public affairs and gender studies at the University of Kansas.

But all that changed late last month when voters in conservative Kansas roundly rejected a ballot measure designed to toughen abortion laws in the state, the first such referendum since June 24.

"We've seen increases across the country in voter registration. Women are outpacing men in terms of registering to vote, and we're seeing a lot more younger people registering to vote," Doan said.

"Stories are going to continue to surface about the difficulties that this reversal has created in people's lives, and the various ways it has touched people's lives."

Six months ago, things looked grim. President Joe Biden's approval ratings, never anything to write home about, were plumbing new depths following last year's disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The COVID-19 pandemic persisted, as did its knock-on effects: a stubborn supply-chain crisis, rampant inflation and soaring energy costs, which manifested in the form of record gasoline prices.

Add to that the fact that a newly elected president's party invariably takes a beating in the midterms, and predictions of a "red wave" were coming fast and furious.

But if a week is a long time in politics, the summer before the midterms must have felt like forever for Republicans.

In the weeks following the Roe reversal, Biden, whose legislative agenda was largely hamstrung throughout his first 18 months as commander-in-chief, suddenly seemed to find his stride.

In July, Congress passed a bill to boost domestic semiconductor production. Weeks later came the Inflation Reduction Act, a pared-down but surprisingly robust package of measures hailed as the most aggressive climate change bill in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, gasoline prices have been falling — something the White House was only too happy to attribute to Biden's efforts, which included authorizing the largest-ever release of oil from the country's strategic petroleum reserves.

Polls in May suggested Republicans had the momentum, leading Democrats by about 2.5 percentage points, according to the polling aggregator Five Thirty-Eight. That script has flipped: Democrats now have a 1.2-point edge.

"For many Americans, confronting the loss of abortion rights was different from anticipating it," Democrat strategist and pollster Tom Bonier wrote last week in the New York Times.

"In my 28 years of analyzing elections, I had never seen anything like what's happened in the past two months in American politics: Women are registering to vote in numbers I never witnessed before."

Biden, who six months ago was seen as a liability for Democrats and faced calls even from within his party not to run again in 2024, is taking full advantage.

"Republicans awakened a powerful force in this nation: women," the president said last week during a rally-the-troops event with the Democratic National Committee.

"The court says that women have a right to vote to change this if they don't like it at the state level. Well, guess what, pal? Here you come."

Not everyone is convinced the political landscape has changed that much, however.

Republicans have an impressive suite of pocketbook issues, which are always powerful weapons in times of economic uncertainty, political observers note. And when it comes to the House of Representatives, America's gerrymandered political map may prove a valuable GOP asset.

"The U.S. Senate races, I think, is where we're going to see the biggest impact of abortion," said Capri Cafaro, a former Ohio state senator who now teaches politics at American University in Washington, D.C.

"The fact that Donald Trump was able to appoint and confirm three Supreme Court justices in four years creates an urgency in the long term to elect senators that will hold judicial nominees accountable."

There is one gubernatorial race where abortion is playing a role that could have ramifications in Canada: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's re-election effort.

Polls suggest Whitmer, whose government is aggressively trying to shut down the Line 5 cross-border gas pipeline, has widened her lead in recent months over Republican challenger Tudor Dixon.

Whitmer has made abortion rights a cornerstone of her campaign, winning a pre-emptive court injunction last month against a so-called "trigger ban" on the procedure that's been on the books in Michigan since 1931.

And on Thursday, the state's Supreme Court ruled that when voters in Michigan go to the polls this fall, they'll be voting on a measure aimed at enshrining abortion rights in the state's constitution.

As a political issue, abortion is back on the front burner, and will likely stay there well beyond this November's elections, Doan said.

The Supreme Court has "created policy and political and legal chaos for the country. They've also created a public health crisis around reproductive health," she said.

"None of those issues are going to go away quickly — they're actually going to continue to unfold and get worse as time goes by."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press