Democrats sought to make the 2022 election a referendum on reproductive rights, and they appear to have been successful: Not only did ballot measures on abortion rights come down repeatedly on the pro-abortion rights side, but the outcomes of important state races should also provide protection for abortion access in states across the country.
In several states, a change in the balance of power within the state legislature or in the governor’s seat would have given Republicans new opportunities to pass new restrictions on abortion across the country.
But in race after race, Republicans either failed to take critical statewide seats held by Democrats or failed to gain enough ground in the state legislature to realize those plans — with one exception in the Great Plains.
What happened in the election: Republicans appear to have picked up enough legislative seats to form a supermajority that could pass abortion-related legislation, the one blemish for abortion rights advocates in this midterm cycle.
What it means for abortion rights: Anti-abortion GOP lawmakers in Nebraska were anxious to pass an abortion ban after the Dobbs decision but they fell a couple votes short earlier this year. In Nebraska’s unique unicameral legislature, bills need 33 votes (out of 49 members) to advance. A near-total ban on abortion was proposed post-Dobbs but received only 30 votes. Conservatives pressured Gov. Ricketts to call a special session to pass a bill to ban abortions after 12 weeks, but he declined, stating that the votes wouldn’t be there until after the midterm elections.
But now Republicans have likely gained enough seats to give it another try. Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state policy for Guttmacher Institute, said anti-abortion Republicans in Nebraska felt “burned” after their failure to pass abortion restrictions in the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs decision and would likely make it a priority in the coming legislative session.
“I think they are very eager,” she said. “If they feel comfortable, they will try to ban abortion.”
What happened in the election: Republicans didn’t win enough seats in the state legislature to override a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. However, the GOP did assume control of the state’s supreme court, which had been held by Democrats and had been sympathetic to abortion rights.
What it means for abortion rights: Republican supermajorities in the state’s legislature would have likely tried to pass new abortion restrictions and override Cooper’s veto. The checks on the GOP’s anti-abortion plans would have been gone. But the party fell one vote short, making it unlikely they will be able to get around Cooper in the near future.
However, their wins at the state supreme court — with justices elected to eight-year terms — could set up another fight over abortion rights if Republicans retake the governor’s seat or gain ground in the state legislature in future elections.
What happened in the election: Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly won her reelection bid against Republican Derek Schmidt.
What it means for abortion rights: Kansas was a bright spot for abortion rights’ advocates earlier this year when voters there rejected a constitutional amendment that would have eliminated the right to have an abortion.
With her victory in an otherwise red state, Kelly will remain the last line of defense against any proposed abortion restrictions that might pass the Republican-controlled state legislature. The GOP majorities had previously come within one or two votes of overriding her veto on abortion legislation.
What happened in the election: Democratic Gov. Tony Evers beat Republican challenger Tim Michels.
What it means for abortion rights: Wisconsin was one of the states where a trigger ban on abortion went into effect as soon as the Supreme Court overturned Roe, prohibiting almost all abortions (the only exception being to save the life of the mother).
But Evers and Democratic attorney general Josh Kaul have been fighting back against that 1849 law, suing to block its implementation, cracking open the possibility that abortions would be permitted in more circumstances if only more recent abortion-related legislation were enforced. Laws such as a ban after 20 weeks and a requirement that pregnant people receive an ultrasound before an abortion would still be on the books. But it would not be a total ban as it is now, at least not without Republicans trying to pass a new bill, if the lawsuit succeeded.
Michels and the Republican nominee for attorney general Eric Toney were expected to drop the litigation, setting the stage for the 1849 ban to stay in effect indefinitely. But Evers’s win ensures the fight will be extended. Instead, next year’s state supreme court elections could be instrumental in dictating the future of abortion rights in Wisconsin.
What happened in the election: Incumbent Democratic Gov. Grethen Whitmer won reelection and Democrats took control of the state legislature.
What it means for abortion rights: Michigan is another state in which a Democratic governor has been a check on a solidly Republican legislature. Whitmer has also been fighting Michigan’s pre-Roe abortion ban in the courts, a cause that GOP nominee Tudor Dixon was unlikely to take up.
A ballot measure to guarantee reproductive rights passed easily and, with a new Democratic trifecta in place, the possibility of strengthening abortion rights and access even more is suddenly in play in the Wolverine State.
What happened in the election: Democrat Josh Shapiro handily beat Republican Doug Mastriano in the race to succeed outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. Democrats are also on the verge of reclaiming control of the Pennsylvania House.
What it means for abortion rights: Like Whitmer and Kelly, Wolf stood athwart the Republican legislature’s anti-abortion ambitions, and Shapiro maintains Democratic control of the veto pen.
The legislature had also been advancing a constitutional amendment that would restrict abortion. GOP majorities passed the amendment once. It would still need to pass the legislature once more and then it would be put before voters. But if Democrats were to unexpectedly take control of one chamber, that could be a more difficult lift for abortion opponents.
What happened in the election: Democrat Wes Moore won the race to succeed Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
What it means for abortion rights: Maryland was one of the few bright spots for Democrats this election. Hogan had been hostile to expanding abortion services during his tenure, but with Moore now in the governor’s house, the Democratic legislature should find it easier to pass legislation authorizing those investments.
Abortion rights advocates count this as an important win, given Maryland’s proximity to states like Ohio and West Virginia, where access to abortion is much more limited.