In Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) was reelected in part by presenting herself as a champion of abortion rights, voters approved a ballot initiative that will enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution — preventing a 1931 abortion ban from taking effect.
And in North Carolina, Republicans failed to win a veto-proof legislative supermajority, ensuring that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will continue to have the power to block abortion restrictions in a state that has become a critical access point for people seeking abortions across the Southeast.
The string of abortion rights successes affirmed a political trend that emerged in August, two months after the fall of Roe, when voters in conservative Kansas rejected an antiabortion amendment similar to the one that was defeated in Kentucky. The results showed how even as GOP lawmakers have seized the moment to enact more restrictions, much of the public sees the issue differently — with about 6 in 10 midterm voters saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to exit polls.
Network exit polls also found that almost 3 in 10 voters nationally said abortion was the most important issue in their vote, and that about 4 in 10 voters nationally said they were “angry” that Roe was overturned.
“This victory shows us that we can win everywhere on this issue,” said Rachel Sweet, who managed the abortion rights campaigns in Kentucky and Kansas, and who has heard of other states where advocates are discussing plans to mount similar efforts. “We just have to do the work and make sure we fight.”
Tamarra Wieder, state director for Kentucky Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, said a “unifying message” had emerged from the 2022 midterms: “Abortion transcends party lines.”
The losses left antiabortion advocates feeling frustrated and searching for answers.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, blamed what she characterized as “lies” from abortion rights proponents, who she said spread misleading information about the goals of antiabortion lawmakers and the details of the ballot initiatives.
Dannenfelser also criticized some Republicans, saying many shied away from the abortion issue rather than having the courage to be upfront about their views — thereby giving abortion rights advocates a rhetorical advantage.
She drew a distinction between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a 15-week abortion ban into law and cruised to a landslide reelection win, and Mehmet Oz, who Dannenfelser said tried to avoid talking about abortion rights and lost the Senate race in Pennsylvania.
“If you get accused of wanting to put women in jail … and fail to say anything about what your own position is, it sticks, and you might lose,” Dannenfelser said.
Activists on both sides of the issue were closely monitoring a handful of major state-level contests where the future of abortion access continues to hang in the balance. Several governors’ contests were seen as pivotal for abortion rights, including in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Kansas, where Democrats Josh Shapiro, Tony Evers and Laura Kelly were projected winners, respectively, as well as Arizona, where the contest is still too close to call.
In Michigan, nearly half of voters said abortion was the most important issue deciding their vote, according to exit polls, ranking well above inflation. Abortion was also the top concern for Pennsylvania voters, with more than a third selecting abortion as their top issue, according to exit polls.
Voters in solidly Democratic states also cast their ballots for abortion Tuesday, with California and Vermont each approving an amendment that will explicitly protect abortion rights in their state constitutions.
In Kentucky, many Republican voters appeared to cast ballots favoring the abortion rights side even as they soundly reelected one of the Senate’s most conservative members, Rand Paul (R). The Kentucky measure would have amended the state constitution to clarify that it does not protect the right to abortion, making it virtually impossible to challenge antiabortion legislation in court.
Abortion has been almost entirely illegal in Kentucky since the summer. For abortions to resume, abortion rights advocates will need to secure an additional victory — next week, the Kentucky Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the state constitution protects abortion rights.
Dawn Riley, a 55-year-old independent and agriculture consultant in Kentucky, said the antiabortion amendment was “a leap too far” for many.
“I really feel like ultimately people don’t want that intrusion on their private lives,” said Riley, who worked for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the late 1980s. “I think the arguments of children and grandchildren having fewer rights than their mothers will resonate. Moving forward and not turning back the clock is a big part of the message.”
During the campaign, Wieder, of Kentucky Planned Parenthood, said her team frequently encountered Republican voters planning to cross party lines on the amendment. Many voters expressed concern about the women being denied health care across the country because of the recent abortion bans, she added.
The playbook deployed by the abortion rights movement in Kentucky mirrored the one that proved successful in Kansas this summer. Protect Kentucky Access, the group of abortion rights organizations working to defeat the amendment, hired the same campaign manager who had led the Kansas effort, and deployed some of the same messaging they believed worked in Kansas — that Americans should be free to make health care decisions without government involvement.
Similar efforts could expand to other states. For months, abortion rights advocates have been exploring ballot measures to protect abortion rights in state constitutions in 2024, including in conservative states with restrictions on the books. These initial discussions have been occurring in states such as Ohio, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado, according to interviews with over a dozen advocates, liberal groups and others, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations.
Any state where advocates can gather signatures to put abortion access directly to voters “should absolutely explore” doing so, said Sweet, the campaign director in Kentucky, who is a former organizer for Planned Parenthood.
She pointed to Missouri and Oklahoma as states where advocates are looking into whether to launch campaigns. “I certainly want the campaigns that we have run in Kansas and Kentucky to be available as a resource,” Sweet said, cautioning that ballot measure campaigns are massive — and costly — undertakings.
Roughly half of states have processes allowing citizens to gather signatures and petition to put questions on the ballot. Yet, only 18 states allow voters to directly amend their state constitutions through such petitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That limits where abortion rights advocates can protect or restore abortion access.
To protect abortion rights, Democrats are also investing more heavily in state legislative races — which, while less visible than statewide elections, are crucial for abortion rights. The States Project, a Democratic-aligned group, funneled $60 million into those contests during the midterms, eager to make a difference on key issues like abortion.
The investment seems to have paid off. In addition to holding off the Republican supermajority in North Carolina, Democrats made significant gains in state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, all states where Democratic majorities will help shore up abortion rights.
“For too long state legislatures have seemed like the minor leagues,” said Simone Leiro, chief communications officer at the States Project. “We are in a moment when state legislatures couldn’t be more important.”
Because of the Democratic victories in state legislatures, Leiro added, “abortion access was expanded in a lifesaving way last night.”
Bellware reported from Louisville. Roubein reported from Detroit. Emily Guskin contributed to this report.
The 2022 Midterm Elections
Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.
What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.