In late September, Andy Beshear, the Democratic governor of Kentucky, released one of the most powerful and effective adverts seen in US politics this year.
In it Hadley Duvall, a young woman, recalled being raped by her stepfather at age 12, and blasted Republican candidate Daniel Cameron for pushing a strict abortion ban. “Women and girls need options,” she said.
On Tuesday night, Beshear won re-election over Cameron in one of the most conservative states in America, as Democrats notched up victories in state and local elections that buoyed their hopes ahead of the 2024 presidential race.
The Democratic wins had a common thread: the continuing revolt of most American voters to the Supreme Court ruling, Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that struck down the constitutional right to abortion that had existed for half a century.
While the court’s conservative justices handed down the decision in June 2022, it has continued to drive voters to the polls in support of Democrats, from last year’s midterms to Tuesday night’s contests.
“What we’re seeing now is this post-Dobbs backlash,” said Jessica Taylor, an analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “And Republicans have clearly not come up with an effective message on this.”
For President Joe Biden and the Democrats, the off-year election results offered relief and reassurance following a series of dispiriting polls, including one showing him falling behind former president Donald Trump in several critical battleground states.
“Voters vote. Polls don’t,” Biden campaign officials have said repeatedly since Tuesday.
Outside the White House on Wednesday, vice-president Kamala Harris said: “The voters said, ‘look, the government should not be telling a woman what to do with her body’. It was a good night for democracy.”
Beyond Kentucky, voters in Ohio — another conservative state won by Trump in the past two presidential elections — overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure to protect abortion rights.
Abortion was also the critical factor that helped Democrats in Virginia secure majorities in both chambers of its legislature. It was a blow to Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor who campaigned heavily on a proposed abortion ban starting at 15 weeks of gestation, thinking that voters would consider it a compromise position.
While some donors had been pushing Youngkin to make a late entry into the party’s presidential primary before Tuesday, he conceded he was not “going anywhere” on Wednesday.
“Youngkin thought [the 15-week abortion ban] was going to score points for Republicans and create a pathway for him to run for president by being the first one to crack the code for Republicans,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of Reproductive Freedom for All, an abortion rights group.
“What it ended up doing was catalysing for Democrats a very clear position to run against . . . voters didn’t fall for it.”
Other top Republican lawmakers were contending with the fallout.
“For pro lifers, last night was a gut punch. No sugar coating it. Giving up on the unborn is not an option. It’s politically dumb and morally repugnant. Instead, we need to understand why we lost this battle so we can win the war,” JD Vance, the Republican senator from Ohio, posted on X, formerly Twitter, the day after the vote.
Dan Meuser, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters on Thursday that Youngkin should have focused more on other issues, from inflation to education and debt, and that the party needed to prioritise the promoting of a “culture of life” rather than national restrictions.
The Republican presidential candidates have also been split on abortion — a rift that was apparent in a debate on Wednesday night in Florida.
Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator, courted evangelical Christians by vowing to press ahead with a national ban. But Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN, said it was not realistic, casting a more moderate position. “You have to be honest with the American people,” she said.
Will Hurd, a former Texas Republican congressman and Haley supporter, told the Financial Times that abortion was “going to be an issue” in 2024 and Haley could “be pro-life but also talk to other folks”. Hurd, who dropped out of the presidential race himself last month, added: “If we don’t get this right, then we’ll continue to see losses.”
Trump has tried to cast himself as a less aggressive proponent of abortion restrictions but Democrats say there is no escaping the fact that his three Supreme Court appointments — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were crucial in creating the majority responsible for Dobbs.
The Biden campaign has also been quick to point out that Trump has openly taken credit for nominating the justices that delivered the Dobbs ruling, once said that some “form of punishment” was needed for women who had abortions, and that the federal government had a role to play in “protecting unborn life”.
Democrats have seen that pivotal constituencies that support them, particularly women and black voters, have been motivated to vote for candidates on abortion.
But relying on abortion to continue motivating them will be a big step, given the range of other issues, from the economy to foreign policy.
“Women don’t want to give up reproductive rights,” said Virginia Democrat Senator Tim Kaine. “Nobody wants to go backward.”
In a number of states, including Arizona, Nevada and Florida, ballots next year may include specific questions on abortion rights. That could bolster turnout in Democrats’ favour — although it will still require big mobilisation and resources to get out the vote.
“American voters know that Donald Trump and the Republican party overturned Roe vs. Wade,” said Timmaraju, referring to the legal precedent protecting abortion rights prior to 2022.
“They took credit for it, they wrapped themselves around in it, they’re proud of it. Our job is to make sure [voters] remember it.”
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