Signs of rising voter registrations by women could alter midterm election history

WASHINGTON (September 29, 2022)—Midterm elections historically have low voter turnout, but recent increases in voter registration among women in many states could make November's election a major exception, a change in pattern that potentially could help Democrats.

After the Supreme Court in June overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, TargetSmart, a political data firm, identified a historic wave of new voter registrations among women—and they turned out in recent special elections.

Earlier in the year, Republicans were polling well, as traditionally expected of the party not in the White House during midterm elections, TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier, told Capital News Service in an interview. But he said June's court ruling has shown the potential to disrupt the existing narrative of a good year for Republican candidates.

"The notion is, if there's a group of voters who have become more engaged in an election after a certain point or a certain event, that you would see it in voter registration because if they're really more engaged, more of them will be registering to vote," Bonier said.

The ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned two prior Supreme Court decisions, Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, giving individual states the power to regulate all aspects of abortion not otherwise regulated by federal law.

"For 50 years, states have been unable to enact even modest protections for unborn children… Not anymore. Now the American people get their voice back," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said in a statement about the decision.

Following the decision, abortion bans immediately took effect in 13 states, according to the Center for Reproductive Health's abortion law tracking map, and 13 more states are considered "hostile," which means they are likely to criminalize abortion soon.

"Because the Dobbs decision was so overreaching, it was seismic in its impact," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, said during a Sept. 15 press conference.

TargetSmart is observing surges in voter registration among women in states with competitive Senate and gubernatorial races like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. Those states will be key races to watch, Bonier said, where Republicans were counting on an election cycle advantage.

The Senate currently is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, but by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris's ability to break tie votes, the Democrats are in control. So a change in a single seat will determine which party runs the Senate starting in January.

In August, Kansas voters shot down a proposed amendment that would have removed all abortion protections from the state's constitution. There was a huge gender gap among voters in Kansas, Bonier said, with 56% of the ballots cast by women.

Women were registering to vote in Kansas as well, Bonier said, with almost a 40-point gender gap in new registrations between the Supreme Court's abortion ruling and the August vote.

Kansas broke its usual midterm pattern, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, said at a press conference on recent abortion legislation.

"As we've seen already across the country, the sunflower state of Kansas, over 500,000 people showed up to vote on the side of a woman's right to make her own healthcare decisions," Klobuchar said. "That's more than showed up overall in its entirety in the last midterm."

"A strong outreach and information campaign led by countless organizers and volunteers was critical to that outcome and ensured citizens were aware of the stakes and of the deliberate campaign to confuse them about what a YES or NO vote meant," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said in a campaign fundraising letter earlier this month. He is running for reelection. "…Kansas shows that if we are organized and determined we can effectively fight back at the ballot box."

The surprise results in the Kansas election suggest there may be more uncertainty in this fall's contests than many analysts and politicians initially assumed, Bonier said.

Gender gaps are appearing across the country—not to the same degree as Kansas—but larger than has been seen in any previous election, Bonier said. Early indicators show that women are much more engaged in the election cycle than they were before the abortion ruling.

GOP candidates have a challenge, Amy Walter, publisher and editor-in-chief of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said on a recent podcast, "Hell and High Water with John Heilemann."

"To me, the big question going forward for some of these Republicans is, how do they keep the focus on the issue they want, which is Biden plus economy, without seemingly ignoring this big elephant in the room, which is abortion?" Walter said. "Just thinking you're going to run all on economy and not address an issue that is clearly very important to a significant segment of voters I don't think is completely sustainable."

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who is running for reelection in Illinois, agreed that the abortion issue has energized women voters.

"Those women who have said, 'You know what? I've never voted on abortion before. It's been something that I support and something I'm concerned about, but I'm voting on abortion this time.' These are women on both sides of the aisle," Duckworth said. "Let me tell you, like in Kansas, they're voting on it now."

Special election results have shown similar patterns since June, with Democratic candidates winning in Alaska's at-large congressional district and New York's 19th District, and a Republican candidate winning by a smaller margin than expected in New York's usually red 23rd District.

"Democrats are already talking about this issue all across the country and the nation is already rallying for the right to an abortion and against these Republican harmful attacks," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said about the recent abortion legislation in September.

Polls from FiveThirtyEight show Democrats steadily gaining support in the generic congressional ballot. Republicans had held a steady lead of roughly 2.3 points from early 2022 to the beginning of July, when Democrats started gaining ground.

By Sept. 22, Democrats had taken the lead with 1.9 points, more than a 4-point increase.

"I do think this issue will be, in the end, the most impactful and decisive issue in this election and I think Republicans were planning on it being about inflation and the economy," Bonier said.

The impacts of the women's vote will likely stretch beyond the midterms, Bonier predicted, because "if you vote in one election, you're much more likely to vote subsequent elections, so these women won't disappear."

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