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.
Tracking results where abortion access hangs in the balance
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.
A “unifying message” was emerging from the 2022 midterms, said Tamarra Wieder, state director for Kentucky Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates: “Abortion transcends party lines.”
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 and Wisconsin, where Democrats Josh Shapiro and Tony Evers were projected winners, 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 as most important. Abortion was also the top voting concern for Pennsylvania voters, with more than a third of voters selecting abortion as their top issue, according to exit polls.
Voters in solidly Democratic states also cast their ballots for abortion on Tuesday, with California and Vermont each approving an amendment that will explicitly protect abortion rights in their state constitutions.
Arizona court halts enforcement of near-total abortion ban
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, Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky referendum 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 would need to secure an additional victory next week, when the Kentucky supreme court will have the opportunity to decide whether the state constitution protects abortion rights.
Kentucky judge reinstitutes state abortion ban, reversing lower court
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 Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) 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 who were being denied health care across the country because of the recent abortion bans, she added.
“This issue really resonated with them,” Wieder said.
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.
How Kansas became a bellwether for abortion rights
Protect Kentucky Access tried to broaden its base of supporters, attempting to appeal both to traditional abortion rights supporters and advocates of small government who might be wary of government overreach.
The antiabortion camp, “Yes For Life,” focused on activating Kentucky’s sizable antiabortion electorate. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 57 percent of Kentuckians believed abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, making Kentucky one of the most antiabortion states in the country.
In the finer points of the message, the groups on each side of the Kentucky referendum frustrated their opponents with what they argued was misleading messaging.
Titus Folks, a 28-year-old antiabortion activist who worked in Kentucky with Students for Life, blamed “misinformation” for the amendment’s failure, accusing abortion rights supporters of mischaracterizing the ballot initiative in their campaign.
“We’ve been getting a lot of confusion about what these ballot initiatives mean and what they do,” he said. “It’s hard for people to make sense of it.”
Folks said he felt confident that public opinion would “stabilize” on abortion over the coming year, with people eventually becoming more supportive of antiabortion measures.
Michigan abortion ballot measure will be put to voters in November
Several voters in Michigan, including those who don’t identify with a political party, said they voted for the measure so that politicians wouldn’t have say over whether a woman can seek an abortion.
Vreni Merrell-Myers, 22, and her father, Kirby Merrell, knocked on door after door Monday night in Royal Oak, Mich., the first time the pair had ever canvassed.
Merrell-Myers said it was “terrifying” to think that a doctor could lose their medical license for trying to help her access basic health care.
“Roe your vote,” Kirby Merrell responded, referring to a phrase abortion rights supporters have used to mobilize their base to defeat antiabortion candidates.
Kim Bellware reported from Louisville. Rachel Roubein reported from Detroit. Emily Guskin contributed to this report.