With Abortion on the Ballot, the ‘Red Wave’ Was Barely a Trickle

Republicans were expected to sweep the midterms, but they badly underperformed.

With Abortion on the Ballot, the ‘Red Wave’ Was Barely a Trickle
Dr. Mehmet Oz, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate candidate, who lost to Democrat John Fetterman on Tuesday. Photo:Win McNamee (Getty Images)

U.S. midterm elections have historically swung in the direction of the party that’s not in control of the White House. Republicans, according to common wisdom, were expected to flip the House and Senate easily this year, as they did under then-President Barack Obama in 2010.

Even after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June—a wildly unpopular move that appeared to cut the GOP’s momentum—pundits mostly agreed that the wave of anger over the loss of abortion rights had waned just in time for Tuesday’s election. The Wall Street Journal wrote last week that abortion was “losing potency in energizing voters,” that “economic anxiety” was heavily benefiting Republicans ahead of the midterms, and that Democrats were growing “concerned that rising inflation and gas prices are overshadowing abortion as a priority for many voters.” Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) warned Democrats not to talk so much about abortion, because polls clearly suggested the GOP was poised to sweep Tuesday’s election.

But that didn’t happen. There was no red wave, no “bloodbath,” as Donald Trump Jr. prematurely declared. In fact, despite winning some key races, Republicans had the worst midterm performance of an opposition party since 2002. By the night’s end, conservatives had already started panicking, pointing fingers, demanding to know what went wrong.

A lot of candidates that former President Donald Trump had endorsed unexpectedly lost, and Democrats overperformed in swing states. Democrat John Fetterman won Pennsylvania’s crucial Senate seat, despite establishment Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) campaigning with his opponent, the Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz, over the weekend. Democrat Josh Shapiro won Pennsylvania’s governor’s race, which the New York Times attributed to his opponent’s opposition to abortion.

The exit polls clearly backed up that theory:

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer was reelected governor in Michigan. The Michigan state senate is poised to flip to Democratic control for the first time in 38 years. Massachusetts elected its first Democratic governor in seven years (and its first female and first openly lesbian governor ever), Maura Healey. And while Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) beat Democrat Stacey Abrams pretty easily to win reelection, Republican Herschel Walker is having a much harder time flipping that Georgia Senate seat than was expected—his race against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) is likely headed to a run-off.

Republicans had a few big wins—Trump wannabe J.D. Vance, for instance, won his Senate race in Ohio. But overall, the party underperformed so badly Tuesday night that it’s actually unclear as of Wednesday morning whether Republicans will manage to flip the House or the Senate, both of which many had been treating as foregone conclusion. If the GOP wins either, it will be by an extremely thin margin.

And in the five states where abortion was literally on the ballot—California, Vermont, Michigan, Kentucky and Montana—all have either been called in favor of abortion rights or strongly appear to be leaning that way. Even Kentucky voters, who reelected the staunchly conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R) by nearly a 20-point margin and overwhelmingly chose Trump in 2020, appear to have rejected an amendment that would end the right to abortion in the state.

It’s hard to deny that reproductive rights had a massive effect on this election, especially after we’ve been subjected to months of horrifying stories about what lack of abortion access can do to pregnant women and girls. Both CNN and NBC exit polls found that abortion was the second most important issue on voters’ minds on Tuesday next to inflation, with the latter only slightly edging out the former. Americans listed reproductive rights as far more important to their votes than crime, immigration, or gun policy.

In American politics, abortion has long been treated as a “social issue,” a “women’s issue”: worth mentioning, but ultimately peripheral to more important matters like the economy. This election, if anything, should have made it abundantly clear that abortion is undeniably an economic issue. The decision of whether to carry a pregnancy to term has huge economic implications for would-be parents’ lives—yes, including men’s—and if Republicans learn anything from this election, it should be that voters do not want politicians to take that choice away from us.

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