In sprint to November, Democrats seize on shifting landscape over abortion

No issue has upended the battle for Congress and state races as abruptly

Coby Rich, 20, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, helps Chelsea Perry, 30, an MBA student at the Wharton School, register to vote during an All In PA voter drive on campus in Philadelphia. (Michelle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
14 min

PHILADELPHIA — Cat Thomas used to call herself politically independent. But she registered as a Democrat the moment she turned 18 this summer, fearful that Republicans in Pennsylvania would ban abortion.

Hope Pierotti, 20, hurried to re-register in her new swing-state home days after Roe v. Wade was overturned, similarly anxious about abortion rights. The procedure is legal in Pennsylvania, but Republicans could pass sweeping restrictions if they win the governor’s race and keep control of the statehouse.

And Britney Preston finally signed up to vote two years after sitting out the 2020 presidential election — when she felt her ballot would not make a difference, even in this battleground state.

“They will ban abortions if the wrong people are elected,” said Preston, 22, a small-town amusement park supervisor about to head back to school. “Before it was a threat. Now it’s actually happening.”

All three were among an influx of women signing up to vote in at least several states after the Supreme Court’s June decision to strike down the landmark ruling that made abortion a constitutional right — part of a broader post-Roe shift in the midterm landscape that has turned what many once anticipated would be a Republican wave into a more competitive fight nine weeks before Election Day. The registration increase in Pennsylvania benefited Democrats, data show, and party strategists hope to make similar inroads across the country with voters newly motivated to cast ballots against GOP candidates.

While other factors such as slowing inflation have eroded the Republican advantage, according to strategists in both parties, no issue has upended the battle for Congress and statehouses as abruptly as abortion. An enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters has narrowed since the Supreme Court’s ruling, polling shows, while female voters who drifted away from the Democratic Party after the 2020 election are shifting back. Democrats have overperformed in special elections, and voters showed up in droves to reject a ballot measure in ruby-red Kansas aimed at restricting abortion.

Republicans are still benefiting from economic woes and low approval ratings for President Biden. They remain favored to retake the House, and further inflation could strengthen their hand. But from Florida to Michigan, Wisconsin to Arizona, abortion has quickly become a larger focal point of voters and candidates, leading some in the GOP to brace for a much closer fight this fall than expected.

Abortion is now banned in these states. See where laws have changed.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — who urged his party to take a New York special election loss as a “wake-up call” — said GOP House leadership signaled an “all hands on deck moment” on a conference call Thursday with lawmakers and pollsters. The takeaway from the call, Cole said, was that “the battlefield still broadly favors us” but that “the Democrats have certainly got the wind at their back the last couple of weeks, and they’re stepping up.”

It remains to be seen which issues will be top of mind for voters in November, and polling consistently shows the economy as the main concern. But as abortion has risen sharply in importance, the two major parties have adapted to the changed political terrain in very different ways.

Republicans have largely avoided campaigning on abortion — in some cases backing off calls for strict bans and scrubbing language promoting hard-line views from their websites. Democrats have leaned into the issue and poured money into attack ads highlighting Republicans’ antiabortion views and targeting contests in states where Republicans are expected to uphold bans on the procedure or help enact new ones.

Democrats see the once unthinkable: A narrow path to keeping the House

The trends unfolding across the country are coming into focus here in Pennsylvania, a purple state with a competitive Senate race factoring heavily into the battle for the majority and a governor’s race that could pave the way for an abortion ban. As a state legislator, Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano wrote a bill prohibiting abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected — before many women realize they are pregnant — while Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro has vowed to veto new restrictions from the GOP-led legislature, just like the current governor, Democrat Tom Wolf.

Knocking on doors in a suburb of Philadelphia on Friday, canvassers with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America told voters that Mastriano wants to ban “late term abortions,” generally understood to refer to abortions between or after 21 and 24 weeks of pregnancy, leaving out his support for more restrictive bans without exceptions for rape and incest.

Even some antiabortion advocates say that those angry and fearful about Roe’s end are more motivated heading into the fall. “I would say since Dobbs, the other side’s been more energized than our side. I would admit that,” said Michael McMonagle, president of the PA Pro-Life Coalition, referring to the Supreme Court ruling that struck down Roe.

Shapiro is reminding voters about the end of Roe and what might come next, centering the issue in his general election ads.

“An older woman literally grabbed me by the lapels of my jacket and pulled me in to her face and said, ‘Do not let us go back to what it was like before Roe,’ ” he recounted in an interview, adding that he’s hearing about abortion “across the board, from everyone, because they see this as dangerous to their freedoms.”

Earlier this year, before the ruling, 46 percent of newly registering women signed up as Democrats in Pennsylvania; afterward, 62 percent of them did, according to a Washington Post analysis of registration data. The portion of newly registered voters in the state who were women jumped from about 51 percent before the Supreme Court struck down Roe to nearly 65 percent in the week after.

When the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked, “I thought, you know, if this really happens, it’s going to mobilize Democrats for sure, especially women voters — but what we’ve seen since is it’s mobilizing a lot of other people, too,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who is fighting for reelection in a competitive race. Asked whether she supports any restrictions on abortion, Wild said, “The government doesn’t belong in your doctor’s office.”

Democrats in Pennsylvania hope the real possibility of an abortion ban will help them flip the state House, which grew more attainable after redistricting. Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee for the open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, has said he does not believe in government restrictions on abortion and would get rid of the filibuster to codify Roe at the federal level. He has a “Women for Fetterman” rally planned in the Philadelphia suburbs this coming weekend with a focus on abortion access.

His Republican opponent, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, has backed exceptions to abortion bans but drew new scrutiny last week for suggesting during his primary that abortion at any stage amounted to murder. “If life starts at conception, why do you care what age the heart starts beating at?” he said in audio first reported by the Daily Beast and also obtained by The Post. “It’s, you know, it’s still murder, if you were to terminate a child whether their heart’s beating or not.”

Campaigns for Oz and Mastriano did not respond to requests for comment.

Abortion access loomed large at a recent Democratic voter registration drive where volunteers fanned out around the University of Pennsylvania’s campus to snag students between classes. On the registration table: pink-and-purple cards soliciting more volunteer sign-ups with the slogan “DEFEND CHOICE,” alongside stickers for “climate action” and legalized marijuana.

“I grew up with a religious background, but … I feel like there are certain things you can’t decide about other people’s bodies, and my vote will matter more here,” said Rebecca Wu, 25, who was easily persuaded to switch her registration from solid-blue California.

The rise in women registering to vote is not unique to Pennsylvania — an even more dramatic increase happened in Kansas ahead of the August ballot measure asking whether the state’s constitution should continue to protect abortion access. Female registrants spiked after the Dobbs opinion was leaked and again after the Supreme Court released its ruling, at one point accounting for more than 70 percent of new voter sign-ups.

The numbers of new registrations are small in comparison with the total number of voters registered. But strategists have noted the registration data as one indicator of Roe’s salience for female voters.

While the trend isn’t seen everywhere, there are indications that it extends into many states beyond Pennsylvania and Kansas. However, The Post’s analysis, based on figures provided by the voter data company L2, is not conclusive. The data collection does not extend far enough after the Supreme Court’s decision to draw more definitive inferences.

Beyond new voters, independent women and young people have moved toward Democrats, according to a Wall Street Journal poll conducted late last month. Fox News polls show that suburban women, in particular, shifted toward Democrats and away from Republicans between June and August.

Patrice Martin, 61, said she was “all about” Mastriano until she heard about his stance on abortion. “He’s frightening,” said Martin, who lives in Fairless Hills, a suburb of Philadelphia, and is a registered Republican but considers herself nonpartisan. Fairless Hills is part of Bucks County, which Biden won by just a few percentage points in 2020; Republican wins in local races last year stoked GOP hopes that the suburbs were turning its way.

Another recent poll, by CBS News, also singled out White women with college degrees, who favored Democrats by six points in July and 13 points in late August. At the same time, interest in the election has increased dramatically among Democrats and independents, according to NBC News polling conducted before the draft abortion opinion leaked in May and afterward.

Overall, men and women had roughly the same increase in interest, the data show. Younger adults and Black voters — both groups more likely to vote Democratic — also had notable jumps in engagement. Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, who is working on Senate and House races, said he is advising campaigns to include abortion in their Spanish messaging as his polling shows Latino voters favor access to the procedure.

In a competitive race for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger recently released an ad that showcased the antiabortion views of her opponent, Yesli Vega, including Vega’s support for a national abortion ban and comments she made casting doubt on whether women can become pregnant from rape.

The energy around abortion in this election cycle is an “absolute change and departure from anything I’ve ever experienced on the campaign trail,” said Spanberger, adding that she views her ad as a “public service announcement.”

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently shifted Spanberger’s race from “toss-up” to “lean Democratic” while announcing that it was moving four suburban districts held by Democrats “into safer categories.”

Pollsters say internal testing shows that Republicans’ comments on abortion make for especially effective attack ads. “We’re seeing that’s the issue that’s sticking with voters,” said Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster working on the Senate race in Arizona — one of the battleground contests that will determine control of Congress next year.

The GOP nominee there, Blake Masters, recently updated his website to remove a broad call for a “federal personhood law” banning abortions; now it says he wants to ban “partial-birth abortion” and procedures in the third trimester. Zachery Henry, a spokesman for the Masters campaign, said the website “was updated post-primary to draw a sharp contrast” with the views of his rival, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.

“That tells me the Republicans know this is a real problem for him,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview. The president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, Marjorie Dannenfelser, defended the move as pragmatic, saying last week that Masters has “rightfully centered his position on what is achievable now at the federal level.”

For decades, a majority of Americans have said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But many strategists doubted the issue would change Democrats’ fortunes this year, especially early in the summer. Patty Pansing Brooks, a Democratic House candidate in Nebraska, said some of her advisers were initially wary of emphasizing abortion, worried about alienating moderates in a solid-red state.

But Pansing Brooks went ahead with an ad on the issue right before her June 28 special election, which she lost by six points in a district that Donald Trump won by 11 in 2020. It was the first in a string of post-Roe special elections in which Democrats exceeded expectations.

Pansing Brooks argues that her odds in a fall rematch have improved as the Dobbs ruling sinks in. Her Republican opponent, Rep. Mike Flood — who did not respond to requests for comment — has criticized federal legislation that would guarantee access to abortions up until the point a fetus can survive outside the womb, and afterward if the patient’s life or health is at risk.

Democratic members of Congress have been talking about abortion far more often than Republican members on social media, according to a Post analysis, especially in recent weeks after initial jubilation from the right at the Supreme Court’s ruling. The same pattern has emerged in statehouse races, where winners will have the power to directly impact abortion restrictions.

“Our candidates are laser-focused on the economy, and we expect that to be the case all the way through,” said Andrew Romeo, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee. “We don’t see them talking about abortion.”

Groups on both sides of the abortion debate have poured money into this year’s races in key swing states. Planned Parenthood has committed $50 million to the midterms — more than it has spent on any past election — while focusing most intently on several states with both Senate and gubernatorial races, including Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin.

Canvassers with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America plan to visit 4 million voters at their homes across battleground states. Students for Life Action, one of the largest antiabortion organizations in the country, is aiming to reach 1 million potential voters between the ages of 18 and 35 before the election.

Organizers have heard “a lot of fear about what the pro-life movement is trying to do” in the post-Roe era, said Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins. Even some who are opposed to abortion have voiced concern that abortion bans will lead to maternal deaths from ectopic pregnancies and other high-risk situations, said Hawkins, who dismissed those concerns as “fake news.” All abortion bans currently in effect include exceptions for the life of the mother, but many doctors are worried that the laws will lead to confusion about what care is legal.

Republicans expressed confidence that they still hold the upper hand this election cycle. But “anyone who says exactly how they think it’s going to play out — I mean, it’s kind of unprecedented,” said GOP strategist John Feehery. “Uncharted waters.”

“How are you going to tell a woman what to do with her body?” said 46-year-old Chantel Davis, a security guard who registered to vote for the first time a few days after Dobbs in Florida, where women went from just under 50 percent of new registrants to 55 percent after the ruling. “They’re trying to control everything.”

Lenny Bronner and Jeremy Merrill contributed to this report.

Abortion access in America

Tracking abortion access in the U.S.: After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the legality of abortion is left to individual states. The Post is tracking states where abortion is legal, banned or under threat.

Abortion pills: The Justice Department appealed a Texas judge’s decision that would block approval of the abortion pill mifepristone. The Supreme Court decided to retain full access to mifepristone as the appeal proceeds. Here’s an explanation of what happens next in the abortion pill case.

Post-Roe America: With Roe overturned, women who had secret abortions before Roe v. Wade felt compelled to speak out. Other women who were seeking abortions while living in states with strict abortion bans also shared their experiences with The Post through calls, text messages and other documentation. Here are photos and stories from across America since the reversal of Roe v. Wade.