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How abortion is affecting midterm elections

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We are less than three weeks out from the final ballots being cast in the 2022 midterm elections, and Republicans are confident that they will take control of the House of Representatives. But Democrats are hoping they still have one advantage around how voters feel about abortion rights. After the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Democrats think promising to protect abortion access is their key to holding on to the House. So what do voters make of all the messaging right now? Well, to discuss how the conversation about abortion rights is playing out on the campaign trail, we're joined now by NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben and NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey to both of you.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: OK. So, Danielle, I want to start with you because you have spent the last several months traveling the country, talking to voters about abortion and how it's impacting the way they're going to vote in this election. Tell me, how has the Democratic Party's focus on abortion messaging resonated or not resonated with voters?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, with Democratic voters and also Democratic-leaning independent voters, it's resonating quite a bit. And to be honest, it's not even necessarily that the Democratic messaging is doing the work here. It's just that a lot of these voters heard the Dobbs decision and were so upset and after that were looking for candidates who were just as upset as they were. Here is Wisconsin voter Joelle Beth Timm. I met her this summer when she answered the door to a canvasser for Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes.

JOELLE BETH TIMM: I'm pretty angry. And, you know, I have some T-shirts that say, you know, mind your own uterus. So they're getting a lot of wear recently. So, yeah, it's, you know, absolutely an issue - absolutely. Quite frankly, it's probably the No. 1 issue that I voted on in my life.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, of course, it's not every Democrat for whom this is No. 1. I mean, there are a lot of concerns out there, but there are so many voters who have their own personal stories, who know their friends' and families' personal stories. There are a lot of those people, and they are very, very fired up.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, obviously, Domenico, Democratic voters are not all the same. So I'm curious, like, what kinds of breakdowns do you see on on age, on gender, on race when you look at polling on abortion? Like, for example, do women's voting patterns seem to be changing?

MONTANARO: Well, first of all, abortion rights as an issue has clearly fired Democrats up across the board. And that's a huge thing because, you know, historically, the party in power loses seats, lots of seats in the House, 26 seats on average since World War II, for example. And Republicans only need five seats to pick up the House. So that's a big deal to have that sort of - that water sort of rise for Democrats to be able to go to the polls. And, you know, that's really important because Republicans had a huge advantage when it came to the overall environment, inflation, the president's low job ratings. And this has really been able to fire up Democratic voters in a way, in particular women, that we hadn't seen before that.

CHANG: Right. Well, you know, as we've been saying, we saw a lot of organizing around abortion when it came to voter registration and fundraising, etc. I am wondering, like, has that enthusiasm remained strong now several months on, or has it waned?

KURTZLEBEN: It's still very strong amongst the people who care. I mean, my sense is that the enthusiasm is pretty baked in at this point. I mean, people who were energized by Dobbs very much still are. But as far as persuasion, it's hard to imagine Democrats swinging someone over to their side on this. Now, it is true that we have seen bumps in women registering to vote in some states since the Dobbs decision, and that's no small thing. The big question for Democrats is if they can continue doing that and, furthermore, if it's this topic, reproductive rights, or something else that will get voters out the door.

CHANG: Well, Domenico, are there any particular key races where abortion is playing an outsized role at this point?

MONTANARO: You know, there's only about half a dozen or so really competitive Senate races that are likely going to decide the chamber. And it's playing in all of them, frankly. You know, from Georgia to Arizona, we're seeing it all over the place and we're seeing it all over the place in congressional ads. I've actually, frankly, been surprised in House races how much it's been used because so many of these places that are swing districts are center-right districts. And not only is that anecdotally telling me that it's key with independents who Democrats so badly need to win over to win those seats, but it also shows up in the data as well that, you know, we've seen majorities of independents say that the Supreme Court's decision actually makes them more likely to vote in this election and overwhelmingly for Democrats. So that's why you see Republicans using crime, for example, as one way to try to offset Democrats' perceived advantage with suburban white women to sort of pull at their dueling priorities.

CHANG: Danielle, as we've just heard Domenico explain that there are some moderate voters out there that could be influenced by the abortion issue, how are Republicans approaching the issue of abortion access? You know, Democrats, they keep talking about it. It feels like Republicans just want to talk about anything else, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Republican candidates, as far as I've seen, they're not bringing it up if they don't have to, which is to say they will talk about it when they are attacked on it. And when they are attacked, they tend to have a sort of two-pronged response. One is they counter by trying to argue that their Democratic opponents are the ones who are extreme on abortion. Many of them also argue that states should be the ones deciding what abortion policy should be. Now, the benefit of that response for those Republican candidates is that it doesn't mean endorsing any particular solution or position that one could argue against. What it means is that those candidates don't have to come down specifically on what they want to do, just how they want to do it.

CHANG: Interesting. Well, Domenico, as you mentioned earlier, Republicans are instead focused on inflation and on crime, like, hoping that fears about economic uncertainty will deliver them this huge victory in November. I am wondering, does the polling indicate that that is a safe bet for them to make?

MONTANARO: Inflation's still overwhelmingly the top issue, and clearly, that's the reason why they're using that because it's far easier to just blame President Biden and Democrats for inflation when polling is showing that people overwhelmingly trust Republicans more right now on the economy. So Republican strategists will say focus on the economy. They're using crime and immigration as well as ways to also fire up their base and, again, to sort of try to mitigate Democrats' advantage with suburban women.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro and NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thank you to both of you.

MONTANARO: Hey. Thank you so much.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Gabe O'Connor
Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Megan Pratz
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.