U.S. midterms: Can Biden still bank on abortion outrage?

Abortion rights activists carry signs during a 2022 Women's March with the theme “We Demand Our Rights” in anticipation of the upcoming U.S. midterm elections on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. October 8, 2022

Abortion rights activists carry signs during a 2022 Women's March with the theme “We Demand Our Rights” in anticipation of the upcoming U.S. midterm elections on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. October 8, 2022. REUTERS/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

What’s the context?

Facing tough elections, Democrats hope anger over the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade ruling will drive abortion rights supporters to the polls

  • State bans follow Supreme Court's landmark June decision
  • Divisive issue could spur higher turnout, polls show
  • Many voters more concerned about the economy than abortion

FEASTERVILLE, Penn. - Like many Americans, Raquel Colon has never bothered voting in U.S. midterm elections, but fearing that abortion rights could be at risk in her home state of Pennsylvania, she is determined to cast her ballot on Tuesday.

More than a dozen U.S. states have already passed partial or full bans on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, and the issue has played an unprecedented role in the run-up to the midterms.

"I thought I might as well try to make a difference this year," said Colon, 35, a pharmaceutical worker in Pennsylvania, a battleground state where campaigning in a high-profile Senate race has frequently centred on abortion.

"I believe in pro-choice," she added, as Democrat canvassers knocked at her door in the suburb of Feasterville.

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The senatorial showdown pits Democrat John Fetterman, who supports abortion rights, against Republican TV doctor Mehmet Oz, who many expect would encourage the state legislature to restrict or ban terminations. Abortion is currently allowed up to 24 weeks in the northeastern state.

Midway through the presidential term, voters will head to the polls on Tuesday to elect a third of the 100-member Senate and all 435 seats in the lower House of Representatives, as well as a slew of state governors and legislatures, which play a key role in deciding local abortion laws.

In five states, including Michigan and Kentucky, voters will also be asked to decide how the deeply divisive issue should be approached by state authorities, regardless of any changes at a federal level.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham proposed legislation in September that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy nationwide.

President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has promised to sign a law to codify abortion rights across the United States, ensuring women's right to access the procedure, if Democrats control the legislature next year.

But the latest opinion polls show Republicans are likely to retake the House of Representatives and possibly also the Senate, with many voters more concerned about the economy and crime than the abortion debate.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on abortion rights in a speech hosted by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the Howard Theatre in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2022

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on abortion rights in a speech hosted by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the Howard Theatre in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2022. REUTERS/Leah Millis

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on abortion rights in a speech hosted by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the Howard Theatre in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2022. REUTERS/Leah Millis

'Roevember'

Still, Democrats hope simmering anger over the Supreme Court's June ruling could boost their chances by pushing more abortion rights supporters like Colon to go to the polls.

Some abortion rights campaigners have even dubbed the midterms "Roevember" in a bid to rally Democrat support.

"We think (the abortion issue) will turn out some voters who might not have otherwise turned out," said Christina Reynolds, a spokeswoman for EMILY's List, a Washington-based group that supports female candidates in favor of abortion rights.

"It won't be the only thing that matters for sure, but we absolutely think it will make a difference," she said.

"What we've seen in our polling is that this is a motivational issue for our side."

Half of respondents said the Supreme Court decision made them more motivated to vote in the midterms, according to the KFF Health Tracking Poll published in October by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit focused on national health issues.

Of them, three-quarters said they would vote for candidates who would protect abortion access.

Abortion is one of the most contentious issues in the United States, with opponents, including conservative Christians, deeming it immoral.

But 71% of Americans say decisions about ending a pregnancy should be up to a woman and her doctor rather than the government, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in May.

A quarter said abortion should be legal in all cases and more than half in at least some cases. Only one in 10 said it should be completely illegal.

What has revved up the abortion issue is persistent shock over the court's June ruling, said Ryan Stitzlein, senior national political director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights advocacy group.

"That was really a game changer because it energized a huge part of the electorate that quite honestly just never believed that could happen," Stitzlein said.

The Supreme Court ruling has also sparked a bounce in voter registration, according to the nonpartisan website Vote.org.

In Kansas, registration leaped more than 1,000% on the day of the court's decision, while Missouri saw a 627% jump from a week earlier.

An abortion clinic escort watches Catholic groups pass Northland Family Planning during a prayer march to demonstrate against the ballot measure known as Proposal 3, which would codify the right to abortion, in Westland, Michigan, U.S., November 5, 2022

An abortion clinic escort watches Catholic groups pass Northland Family Planning during a prayer march to demonstrate against the ballot measure known as Proposal 3, which would codify the right to abortion, in Westland, Michigan, U.S., November 5, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

An abortion clinic escort watches Catholic groups pass Northland Family Planning during a prayer march to demonstrate against the ballot measure known as Proposal 3, which would codify the right to abortion, in Westland, Michigan, U.S., November 5, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Abortion battlegrounds

Supporters and opponents of abortion will be keeping an especially close eye on several states.

In North Carolina, which permits abortion up to 20 weeks, Republicans are hoping to win enough legislative seats to override the Democrat governor's veto power and pass legislation to restrict abortion access.

If Republicans prevail in Wisconsin, where the status of an 1849 state ban has been caught up in the courts since the Supreme Court ruling, the state legislature could push through a more solid prohibition.

The election of a Republican governor in Arizona could pave the way to further restrictions beyond the current 15-week ban.

Back in Feasterville, Pennsylvania, the issue so angered Sean Edmonds that the 25-year-old volunteered to canvas door-to-door to support Mark Moffa, a Democrat running for State Representative who supports abortion rights.

"I didn't like getting involved in politics in past elections. I didn't think my vote could make a difference," said Edmonds.

"(But) what's going on with abortion rights makes me angry," he added as he knocked on doors, targeting the homes of registered Democrats to make sure they would turn out and vote.

One resident, Jaimie Guzman, 45, who works in lease financing, said she only started voting in recent years when issues like abortion rights "started going south."

"I can't bitch if I don't do anything about it," she added.

Crime, inflation, costs

Some commentators, however, say abortion rights supporters may be overestimating the impact of the issue on the elections.

"If the (Supreme Court) decision had been closer to the midterms, it might have had an impact," said Ziad Munson, an associate professor of sociology at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University and author of the book "Abortion Politics".

"For a very short period, it was particularly salient. But now we have drifted back to the kind of status quo that existed before," he said, adding that Americans seemed more preoccupied with inflation.

Anti-abortion campaigners said the Democrats were using the subject as a smokescreen to distract from other issues.

Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Students for Life of America, said it was "outlandish" to suggest the issue was going to save Democrats who support abortion rights.

"The issue of crime, the issue of inflation, the issue of rising costs, these are the top issues motivating people's votes," she said. "Abortion doesn't rank in the top three."

But Morgan Hopkins, president of the All* Above All Action Fund, an abortion rights advocacy group, said making a distinction between the importance of abortion rights and the economy was a false dichotomy.

"Voters understand that the ability to control our economic security is intrinsically linked to our ability to decide whether and when to become a parent," Hopkins said.

"Voters are paying attention and are fired up ... I think it has really hit home for Americans and for voters across the board that we are seeing a restriction of our freedoms."

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Emma Batha and Helen Popper.)


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