The main source of suspense about tomorrow’s midterms is how bad they’re going to be. Republicans are very likely to take over the Senate. (As of this writing, Nate Silver gives them a 72.3 percent chance.) In the House, the only real uncertainty is whether the GOP is going to increase its majority by a little or a lot. One intriguing question that remains open, however, is what tomorrow’s results will mean for the politics of reproductive rights.
The 2012 election marked a huge shift in the way abortion and birth control figure in our politics. For years before then, Republicans had used women’s healthcare as a wedge against squeamish Democrats, championing issues like the so-called “partial-birth” abortion ban and parental consent that were designed to make pro-choice politicians appear out of the mainstream. But in 2012, things changed dramatically. The Republicans, captured by their fanatical base, displayed their own extremism on issues from birth control to pregnancy resulting from rape, while the Democrats learned to exploit their majority among women. Suddenly Democrats weren’t just quietly supporting reproductive rights—they were celebrating them, forcefully and loudly, convinced that doing so was good politics.
This election will help determine whether that transformation is permanent. For pro-choice forces, the terrain is trickier this time around, because many Republicans, chastened by 2012, are deliberately obfuscating their records. In Colorado, Republican Senate Candidate Cory Gardner has backed away from his earlier support for a personhood amendment. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is running an ad claiming that anti-abortion legislation he’s supported “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor…. our priority is to protect the health and safety of all Wisconsin citizens.” There hasn’t been a Todd Akin moment in this cycle to crystallize the right’s anti-abortion absolutism.
Nevertheless, Democrats and their allies are still hoping that talking about the Republican war on women will help them. There are two Senate races in particular where both pro-choice and anti-abortion forces are invested heavily—North Carolina, the most expensive Senate race in the country, and Iowa. As speaker of the North Carolina house, Republican candidate Thom Tillis helped lead a sweeping attack on reproductive rights. Iowa Senate Candidate Joni Ernst, meanwhile, has never renounced her support for personhood legislation, though she has tried to disguise the implications of it. Both races are at least in part referendums on the political costs of anti-abortion extremism.