Looking back on the confident predictions of an impending “red wave” offered by Republican strategists in the days before the midterms, the overriding question now becomes: Were they lying? Or were they just deluded?
On November 4, The New Yorker published an article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells that quoted a raft of Republican campaign experts. To a person, they emphasized their confidence in sweeping the election, often insisting Democrats had made a grievous error in focusing on abortion and the threat to democracy as key electoral issues.
As Wallace-Wells reported: “As these Republican strategists saw it, their candidates did not get past unpopular positions on abortion with a tactical masterstroke, they simply absorbed the electoral hit and moved on.” One Nevada Republican told Wallace-Wells,
“The reason that Democrats have fucked this up is that they won’t stop talking about abortion. And the reason that they screwed it up with Blacks is they won’t stop talking about abortion…. It’s like they’re a two-issue party. It’s this and Trump. They can’t stop. I don’t think they have anything else.”
It would be be more than an understatement to say that the actual election belied this analysis. While the Democrats did score poorly with voters on economic issues, they outperformed expectations precisely because it turned out voters did care about abortion and the GOP’s endangering democracy. A persuasive analysis by New York Times reporter Nate Cohn noted that the Democrats did particularly well in states where these two issues were salient (whether because the GOP nominees were particularly vocal election deniers, or abortion was on the ballot in a referendum, or through state policy). Drawing on Cohn’s analysis, we can conclude that abortion and democracy were winning issues. If the Democrats could have also come up with a message to address economic worries, 2022 could have ended with an even better result than the trickling away of the red wave. There was a real possibility for the Democrats to hold the House and expand the Senate to 53 seats.
But while abortion and democracy played well for the Democrats in 2022, we might wonder if both issues have legs. On democracy, as long as Donald Trump is a power in the GOP, the issue of authoritarianism will be robust. The fact that even after a poor election showing GOP congressional leaders are planning to elevate Marjorie Taylor Greene and defend the January 6, 2021, insurrectionists is a sign that the party will itself keep the issue alive. As Wallace-Wells’s reporting indicated, GOP strategists were hoping that on abortion their candidates could absorb the hit and move on. This was whistling past the graveyard in 2022 and is likely to remain so in the future.
Writing in Politico, University of Denver political scientist Seth Mesket noted that the overturning of Roe was the culmination of a project the GOP had committed itself to at least since 1980 if not earlier. Mesket argues that from the perspective of the party, winning on Roe was important enough a policy victory to make up for the disappointment of 2022.
As Mesket acknowledges,
Republicans are understandably disappointed by the election outcome this year. But one of the core reasons is they secured a huge policy win, one that they’ve advocated for nearly half a century. And despite those self-imposed headwinds, Republicans still took the House, albeit narrowly. If that’s the cost, the GOP arguably got a good deal.
But this “good deal” is worthwhile only if the disappointment of 2022 is the only price paid. Abortion isn’t going to go away either. The Dobbs decision insures that abortion will continue to be central to electoral politics at both a state and federal level for years to come. The GOP was able to change the Supreme Court by successfully harnessing a mass movement that was enraged by Roe v. Wade: white evangelical Christians. Does it seem likely that these same evangelicals would be happy to give up the issue now? Of course not. Overturning Roe was just the start: They will use the new legal landscape to try to push back on abortion wherever they can. And since the religious right is the largest faction inside the GOP, it will be able to pressure lawmakers to keep the issue alive.
Former vice president Mike Pence has perhaps more claim to be the voice of these evangelical Christians than anyone else. He was essential in getting evangelicals to support Trump—and worked with Trump to transform the courts to make the Dobbs decision possible. In an interview on Sunday with Face the Nation, he said, “I will always support efforts to strengthen protections for the unborn. I think it’s most likely that it will be resolved at the state level, but the 15 week legislation in the Congress, had I been a member of Congress, I would have supported.” If, as expected, Pence runs for the GOP presidential nomination, he’ll be able to take that position into the debates. His rivals will be hard-pressed to argue for anything more liberal, for fear of angering evangelical voters. So a national abortion ban will almost certainly remain GOP policy post-Dobbs as it has been pre-Dobbs.
Conservative activists will also find new ways to keep the issue alive at the local level. As The Washington Post reported on Saturday, “Abortion foes sued the Food and Drug Administration in federal court in Texas on Friday in an effort to reverse the agency’s decades-old approval of mifepristone, the drug used in medication abortions.” The case is going before Matthew Joseph Kacsmaryk, a very reactionary, Trump-appointed district judge.
Republican strategists naturally want voters to move on from the abortion issue. That’s because, despite their bluster before the midterms, they know voters care about the issue—and support reproductive freedom by a strong majority. So abortion won’t fade. It’ll continue to be fought in the courts, in the state legislatures, and in federal elections. It’s likely to become even more salient in future elections, as the full impact of Dobbs starts to be felt.