Democrats seek edge with women as Michigan prepares to vote on abortion

The purple state with competitive races for governor and Congress is shaping up as one of the most politically consequential battlefronts in a larger fight

Regina Campbell canvasses with One Campaign for Michigan over the weekend in Pontiac, Mich.
Regina Campbell canvasses with One Campaign for Michigan over the weekend in Pontiac, Mich. (Sarah Rice for The Washington Post)

MASON, Mich. — Sitting next to her two teenage daughters at the county fair — a luxury as rising prices squeezed the family budget — Lois Smith said she was worried about the end of Roe v. Wade.

She calls herself “pro-life”; she calls President Biden a “puppet”; she wants former president Donald Trump to run again. But Smith is not sure how she’ll vote in this year’s midterm elections, as many Republican candidates in Michigan back a near-total ban on abortion that is still working through the courts.

On one thing, 52-year-old Smith was confident — she would vote to make abortion a constitutional right in her state.

“If my girls had come to me and said, ‘Mom, I’m pregnant, I don’t want to keep the baby’ … ultimately it’s going to be their decision,” Smith, who identified as an independent voter, said Friday in a small suburb of Lansing, the state capital.

A decisive victory for abortion rights in conservative Kansas — which voted overwhelmingly last week to continue guaranteeing access to the procedure in the state constitution — has galvanized Democrats hopeful that the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe will reshape the midterms by opening inroads with key voters. Michigan, a purple state with competitive races for governor and Congress, is shaping up as one of the most politically consequential battlefronts. Democrats here are working to win over women who might otherwise be inclined to vote Republican, such as Smith, and turn out base voters who have been difficult to excite, all as Republicans and antiabortion activists aim to counter their efforts.

Women in Michigan led men in new voter registrations by about seven percentage points after the Supreme Court struck down Roe, one data firm’s analysis found. In many of their highest-profile races, Republican voters have nominated candidates who embrace strict abortion bans without exceptions for rape and incest.

And a ballot measure asking whether Michigan should protect abortion in its constitution is likely to go before voters this fall, after thousands of volunteers gathered more than 750,000 signatures in support. Democrats expect that question to supercharge an issue they have already been emphasizing in their campaigns and turn out voters who will also pull the lever for their party’s candidates.

“I’m so mad about it,” 35-year-old Jenny Thompson said of efforts to ban abortion as she got off work at a bar in Detroit. She said that she didn’t vote in the 2018 midterms and that she’s “not really into” the Democratic Party but will definitely vote this year. “Everyone’s freaking out right now,” she said.

Many others take a different view, heralding a fight that is far from settled. Antiabortion activists have branded the proposed addition to the state constitution the “Anything Goes Abortion Amendment” and are gearing up for a multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat it, saying it would go further than what abortion rights activists were fighting for in Kansas. Republicans argue that other issues — mainly the economic challenges faced by many Americans — will define the midterms, turning out their own voters and keeping moderate women in their camp.

The proposed amendment to Michigan’s constitution would allow restrictions on the procedure after the point of fetal viability but says the state may never prohibit an abortion that “in the professional judgment of an attending health care professional, is medically indicated to protect the life or physical or mental health of the pregnant individual.” Several other states will have abortion measures on the ballot this fall, but none is as evenly divided politically as Michigan.

Christen Pollo, the spokeswoman for a coalition working against the amendment, said its language would pave the way for many abortions not necessary to save the life of the mother. She said the coalition does not have a position on the 1931 law severely restricting the procedure — legislation that Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature has not moved to modify — and argued that many voters uncomfortable with abortions later in pregnancy will balk at the ballot measure.

“People in our state might fall all over the spectrum of what they believe about abortion and how long it should be legal,” said Pollo, whose coalition is called Citizens to Support MI Women and Children. “But what voters in Michigan need to know is that this amendment takes all of those conversations off the table.”

That has not deterred Democratic candidates in key races, many of whom are women, from embracing a debate over abortion. “A real shot in the arm” was how Rep. Elissa Slotkin, one of the most vulnerable House Democrats seeking reelection, described the ballot measure. In an interview, Slotkin predicted that messaging about personal freedom and government overreach will resonate in Michigan, where Republicans have capitalized on fury over mask mandates and business shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think Republicans are the dog that caught the car,” added Slotkin, who is running in a swing area that typifies the kinds of districts Republicans are confident they can flip to win back the House. She said GOP candidates are now stuck between flip-flopping on abortion or sounding “completely tone-deaf even to the women in their own party.”

GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon has been appealing to “moms like me” dismayed at inflation and coronavirus-driven school shutdowns. In a video released days after her primary victory, Dixon said she would be voting against the abortion amendment but spent most of the message accusing her opponent, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), of trying to change the subject from the economy, crime, schools and roads.

Whitmer’s two campaign ads to date have focused on economic problems, but the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) launched an attack ad last week centered on Dixon’s support for a strict abortion ban. A spokesperson for Whitmer, Maeve Coyle, said in a statement the governor is working “to deliver on all the issues that matter to Michiganders,” from abortion access to roads to funding for K-12 education.

At the Ingham County Fair that Smith and her daughters attended — where Slotkin and her opponent, state Sen. Tom Barrett (R), both had tables — the local GOP asked people to indicate their “most important issue” by dropping a pebble in one of several jars with labels like “inflation,” “voter ID” and “border crisis.” Abortion was not an option.

A direct vote on abortion access could complicate Republicans’ efforts to focus away from the issue, political observers said, with attention only mounting as Election Day nears.

“You don’t want to talk about it? Well, guess what, there’s going to be tens of millions of dollars rolling into this state talking about it, on both sides of the aisle,” said Richard Czuba, a veteran pollster who is registered as independent. “There’s no escaping this.”

Abortion has loomed large for months in Michigan, as Democratic leaders and advocates for abortion rights try to prevent the 1931 ban on the procedure from taking effect after the Supreme Court struck down Roe, ending a federal right to end one’s pregnancy. Even before the court ruled, there was an effort underway to put abortion access to a popular vote.

“It wasn’t top-of-mind of many voters, but we went ahead anyway,” said ​Nicole Wells Stallworth, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. By January, they had filed paperwork with the state to move ahead with a ballot measure.

Steve Mitchell, a pollster for statehouse Republicans in Michigan, warned against drawing broad conclusions from Kansans’ vote to protect abortion rights, especially given the expansive language of the pending ballot measure in Michigan. But some Republicans have acknowledged their candidates may face challenges if abortion is a central focus, based on public opinion surveys. Nearly two-thirds of Americans said the end of Roe represents a “major loss of rights” for women, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll.

Other pollsters and analysts say abortion appears to have already motivated women to vote. Tom Bonier, chief executive of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart, found that since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe, women led men among new voter registrations in Kansas by nearly 40 percentage points. In Wisconsin, where a strict abortion ban took effect, the gap was nearly 17 percentage points, he said, and in Michigan, it was more than 7 points.

Bonier said he double-checked the Kansas numbers five times after calculating them last week.

“Generally when you analyze this type of data and you look at the Election Day,” Bonier said, “you get excited when you see movement outside the norm by five or six points.”

He added, “I’ve never seen anything like that.” Democrats had an eight-point advantage among Kansans registering since the court decision, he said.

Democrats in Michigan are hoping to tap into similar energy. On Saturday, a handful of volunteers and staffers with their coordinated campaign — mostly women — gathered in Pontiac, a suburb of Detroit. Some shared their reasons for canvassing: Their daughter. Their granddaughters. The financial weight of raising a child. Then they fanned out with pamphlets urging people to “DEFEND CHOICE” in hot pink letters.

Working her way down a block not far from her family restaurant, Regina Campbell did not broach the ballot measure still awaiting approval. But the volunteer made sure to mention “women’s rights” while pitching Whitmer as someone who would also create jobs and “fix the doggone roads.”

“We’re concerned about women’s rights. You know that’s on the ballot?” she told a middle-aged woman through a screen door.

Wendi Wallace, deputy executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said her organization sees Republican candidates’ own words on abortion as a powerful weapon. The DGA has announced $23 million in ad reservations in Michigan this cycle, more than any other state where it is defending incumbents. Its new ad against Dixon highlights her opposition to abortions in cases of rape and incest.

“The question would be like, a 14-year-old who, let’s say, is a victim of abuse by an uncle,” a podcast host asked the candidate last month. “Yeah, perfect example,” Dixon replied.

“You’re saying carry that?” the host said.

Dixon said, “A life is a life for me.”

Dixon’s campaign did not provide further comment.

Other Democrats in competitive Michigan races are also contrasting themselves with their Republican opponents on abortion. Slotkin last week highlighted Barrett’s opposition to exceptions for rape and incest.

A spokesman for Barrett, Jason Roe, said in an interview that “there is a laundry list of issues that women and men will be looking at" beyond abortion, including inflation that has been climbing at its fastest rate in decades.

In Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten warns that GOP nominee John Gibbs could help enact national restrictions on abortion and also opposes exceptions for rape. Walking in a Coast Guard parade on Saturday, she said, she saw “Roe Roe Roe your boat T-shirts” and heard supporters shouting from the sidelines about the issue.

Scholten and other Democrats were paying close attention last Tuesday when Kansans voted about 60 to 40 against an amendment to their constitution that would have removed its protections for abortion access. Abby Rubley, a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, said that among text messages with colleagues, “there was a lot of, ‘I cried.’ ”

Gibbs narrowly won his primary with Trump’s endorsement, ousting Rep. Peter Meijer (R) — who angered the GOP base last year by voting to impeach Trump and whom Democrats viewed as the more formidable candidate in a blue-leaning district. A spokesperson for Gibbs, AnneMarie Schieber, sent Gibbs’s June statement on the end of Roe, which said “the fight to protect the lives of innocent babies and women will continue at the State level, as well as at the Federal level in new ways.”

Scholten said the issue hits home for many voters — particularly those in her demographic. “I’m a 40-year-old mom of two kids, school-aged kids, who is still within her childbearing window,” she said. “It becomes very personal.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.