Dobbs was a game changer: Democrats eye abortion as key to midterm success

Several straight elections since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade have gone favorably for Democrats

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published August 24, 2022 2:10PM (EDT)

Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Weeks after a draft of Justice Samuel Alito's decision overturning abortion rights leaked in May, an extremely low turnout election in Texas' Rio Grande Valley served as a grand indicator of a massive red wave. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the lone anti-abortion Democrat serving in the House of Representatives, narrowly defeated progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. His win was confirmed by recount nearly a month later. In the intervening weeks, however, a Republican flipped a neighboring Democratic seat in a special election. The narrative was set: Democrats are facing midterm disaster.

Then the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood cases affirming a right to abortion in the U.S was made official, and a clear new pattern emerged: American voters are now fighting to protect what remains of abortion rights.

 On Tuesday, the New York special election served as the first competitive contest since the June ruling — and the last big electoral test before the November midterms. The seat, which opened up when Democrat Antonio Delgado vacated it to become lieutenant governor, was the definition of a true toss-up. ​​The district voted for Barack Obama in 2012, Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden — by less than 2% — in 2020.

Pat Ryan, the Democrat, made abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign. His first ad was released right after the Supreme Court's decision. "Freedom includes a woman's right to choose," the Iraq War veteran asserted. 

The Republican, Marc Molinaro, tried to nullify the issue on the campaign trail, claiming that a federal ban wouldn't survive scrutiny by the courts. But the Democrats hounded him for opposing abortion rights as a state legislator. A poll released in the days leading up to Election Day put Molinaro up eight percentage points over the Democrat. On Election Day, the Democrat won. 

As inflation shows signs of easing, polls show concern over abortion rights growing as Democrats have overtaken Republicans on the generic ballot. 

Down in Florida, a Democratic primary was the test case for abortion rights, as a longtime incumbent state representative who campaigned with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to promote the state's newly passed 15-week abortion ban, and the lone Democrat to vote for the ban that includes no rape or incest exemption, was ousted Tuesday by a progressive challenger who was Trayvon Martin's high school English teacher.  

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On Wednesday, Cook Political's House outlook — which in May had a GOP gain of 20-35 seats —  downgraded to a 10-20 seat GOP gain. "Red wave looks more like a ripple," the editors wrote. 

As inflation shows signs of easing, polls show concern over abortion rights growing as Democrats have overtaken Republicans on the generic ballot. 

In Michigan, a poll conducted this month discovered that abortion is now tied with inflation and rising prices as the most important issue to voters — and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is leading in the gubernatorial race. Nationally, nearly two-thirds of Americans said the end of Roe represented a "major loss of rights" for women, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted last month. A Pew poll released on Tuesday found that 56% of registered voters said the issue of abortion will be very important in their midterm vote, up from 43% in March. "Virtually all of the increase has come among Democrats," Pew wrote

"Red wave looks more like a ripple."

As Salon's Amanda Marcotte reported, more women are registering to vote as Democrats across the country in the wake of Dobbs — and have been pivotal in Democratic wins and the effort to protect abortion rights, as was the case in Kansas last month. 

Even closer-than-expected special elections for the House in districts won by Donald Trump in Nebraska and Minnesota this summer saw Democrats lose more narrowly than expected, thanks to high turnout in small cities and suburbs. Sarah Palin's race for the open congressional seat in Alaska even has the Democrat leading the first round with a stronger than expected showing in a ranked-choice election.

Despite Democrats' newfound success, however, a spat of abortion bans are still set to go into effect in three more states this week, including Texas' infamous new bounty system.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Abortion Analysis Democrats Dobbs Elections 2022 Inflation Polls Roe V. Wade Special Elections Supreme Court