Sweeping support for abortion rights stole the show in this year’s election, uniting voters from California’s red inland and southern districts all the way to Kentucky — and giving Democrats an unexpected, trend-bucking boost in close races here and across the country.
Democrats have spent months, since before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this year, making the midterm elections all about abortion as a way to get out the vote and counteract Republican attacks on inflation and gas prices. Experts weren’t sure how well that strategy would work, but now, the proof is in the results.
More Californians voted for Proposition 1, which will codify the right to an abortion in the state’s constitution, than even voted to re-elect the popular Gov. Gavin Newsom — giving the ballot measure a landslide, 30-point victory. Large swaths of voters polled both here and across the country named abortion as their top concern.
And support for reproductive rights extended far beyond the liberal Bay Area, reaching typically red-leaning Central Valley counties, such as Fresno, Mariposa and Merced, and extending south into traditionally conservative San Diego and Orange counties. Nationwide, voters in Vermont and Michigan joined Californians in adding abortion rights to their constitutions, while Kentucky, home to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, voted down an abortion ban. In Montana, a measure critics worried would curtail reproductive rights was losing.
“Abortion was so much more a part of this election than anyone ever thought,” said Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of politics at San Jose State University.
The surge of support for the issue also served as a referendum on Newsom at a time when the governor skated through an easy re-election, while also trying to grow his national profile for a possible future presidential run. Newsom backed Prop. 1 from the beginning, and experts say its runaway victory is a nod toward the governor’s continuing power and influence.
And it’s not the only one. Newsom also took a strong stance against Prop. 30, which would have taxed the richest Californians to fund rebates for electric vehicles and other environmental initiatives. It was gearing up to be a close race, with Lyft and some environmental groups supporting the measure, and wealthy Californians and business groups in opposition. But almost as soon as Newsom planted his flag firmly on the no side, the measure started tanking in pre-election polls. As of Wednesday, with mail-in ballots still arriving, it was behind nearly 20 points.
“He’s really setting the stage to be the next superstar in the Democratic party,” said Alex Torres, director of state government relations for the business-backed Bay Area Council.
Nationwide, Democrats had been bracing for crushing losses, and instead beat Republicans in several key competitive races, leaving control of Congress likely headed to Republican control but still undecided as of Wednesday afternoon. In California, the newly drawn District 13 in the Central Valley was a near dead-heat. And in another big struggle for Democrats — in Orange County, rising party star Katie Porter clung to less than a 1,000-vote lead over Republican challenger Scott Baugh.
But Democrats once again appear to have kept their super-majority in the state legislature and swept every statewide office. Even in the only race projected to be tight in California — the battle for controller — Democrat Malia Cohen was leading Republican challenger Lanhee Chen by seven points Wednesday.
A day after Election Day, 30% of California ballots had been returned, according to Political Data, Inc., which tracks voter data. Turnout will probably end up being about 50% by the time all ballots are counted, estimated Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, , which analyzes voter data.
Abortion was the number-one issue among Democratic voters in California, with 45% saying it’s what brought them to the polls, according to Political Data’s exit polling. For Republicans, it was inflation, gas prices and crime. Nationwide, 76% of Democrats and 27% of all voters ranked abortion as number-one, according to an NBC exit poll. Only inflation ranked slightly higher for all voters — at 31%.
And in California, support for reproductive rights didn’t necessarily break down along expected lines. In Fresno County, for example, Republican U.S. House candidate John Duarte was beating Democratic challenger Adam Gray by more than 10 points Wednesday, even though the race for their five-county district was deadlocked. In the same county, voters backed Prop. 1 by a slim margin.
Abortion rights activists did a good job appealing to a broad spectrum of voters, not just to those who traditionally would be pro-choice, Torres said. The Prop. 1 campaign reached out to the Bay Area Council and pitched abortion access as good for business, because it allows employers to retain workers without worrying they’ll leave for a state with more reproductive freedom.
Across the ticket, Democrats also employed a unique strategy — campaigning for abortion rights instead of campaigning for themselves, Mitchell said. Even Newsom crashed a Prop. 1 party when the polls closed, rather than hosting his own celebration.
That was key, because Democrats had no exciting, competitive races at the top of the ticket to draw voters to the polls, he said.
“Every Democratic candidate was wearing pink on Election Day,” Mitchell said, referring to the signature color adopted by pro-choice activists. “In a way, they were signaling don’t turn out just for me, turn out for abortion. And when you turn out for abortion, also vote for me.”
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