Originally published in Vox on November 17, 2022.
When he was campaigning for governor of Minnesota, Scott Jensen first said he’d ban abortions with no exceptions for rape and incest. Later, he said the governor couldn’t do anything about abortion anyway, given Minnesota’s constitutional protections. Last weekend, in a 22-minute Facebook Live video reflecting on his bruising loss, he made a new argument.
“This election was not about inflation, and crime and education…for so many Americans across the country this election was about an intrusion into a person’s autonomy,” he said, referring to abortion. “In the future I think the lesson is clear — at least it should be to Republicans. If you infringe on someone’s freedom, you may well lose. You’ll probably lose.”
The 67-year-old politician and physician announced his support for birth control over the counter, and morning-after pills in every medicine cabinet. “The pro-life movement should not be about trying to determine what the sexual mores or behaviors are of an American country,” he said.
A week out from the 2022 midterm elections, where abortion played a pivotal role in shaping both campaigns and voter turnout, candidates like Jensen, conservative strategists, and leaders of the movement to restrict abortion rights have been taking stock of the results for a cycle that was expected to be a much bigger blowout for Republicans.
Finger-pointing abounds — at other Republicans, at Democrats, at the media.
Some argue the midterm results are less bad than they first seem; despite losing every abortion rights ballot initiative, and some key statewide races that would have enabled the legislatures to pass new abortion restrictions, Democrats failed to unseat incumbent governors and didn’t win enough seats in Congress to pass any federal legislation restoring abortion rights. “If anything was less impressive on election night than the ‘red wave,’ it was the abortion wave,” quipped Catherine Glenn Foster, the president of Americans United for Life.
Others, like Jensen, say the abortion results were terrible for Republicans and the party requires strategic recalibration if they’re to win in the future. The reactions showcase the divisions and potential directions for the anti-abortion movement in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, where the fate of reproductive rights in America now lies largely in the hands of governors, state legislatures, and voters.
Anti-abortion leaders argue the midterms showed politicians who restrict abortion access won’t pay a price
Some leaders and commentators who want to restrict abortion rights say they see no convincing reason to moderate their goals in the wake of the midterms.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has been working to push back on what she calls a “facile narrative” that abortion rights were a winning issue for Democrats. In a Fox News op-ed she published on Monday, Dannenfelser argued that Republican candidates who went on the offense on abortion, and challenged their opponents’ “pro-abortion extremism” prevailed, citing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, North Carolina Senator-elect Ted Budd, and Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance. She contrasted them with Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Adam Laxalt in Nevada, who she said “buried their heads in the sand” on abortion. (Laxalt ran an ad this fall stressing that abortion rights are protected under Nevada law, and Oz mostly focused on how the federal government shouldn’t be involved.)
Dannenfelser argued her movement was just outspent, and dinged leaders like Mitch McConnell for not campaigning against the anti-abortion ballot measure in his home state.
Glenn Foster, president of Americans United for Life, has put out similar glass-half-full post-mortems, noting that public officials who backed or enforced abortion restrictions were re-elected in nearly 20 states. “Democrats didn’t crack state governor, state attorney general, or state house seats in red states that have enforced abortion limits since June,” she wrote. “Abortion activists couldn’t defeat public officials in those states or win the U.S. House or Senate to block those state laws.”
Anti-abortion media ran with similar arguments, emphasizing that Democrats and pro-choice activists failed to unseat politicians in certain races where they made abortion rights central. “Texas Pro-Life Republicans Win Every Race After Democrats Promised to Beat Them for Banning Abortions,” read one report in LifeNews. “Every Pro-Life Republican Governor Who Signed an Abortion Ban Won Re-Election” read another.
John Gizzi, the chief political correspondent for the right-wing NewsMax, published analysis concluding that arguments that abortion hurt Republican candidates are “just a lot of bunk” by “big media” and those who want abortion rights. “In race after race, abortion was not the deciding factor,” he argued, and pointed to New York, where anti-abortion gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin over-performed, and nine out of 10 anti-abortion Republicans won congressional seats. “In many significant races across the U.S., Democrats used the abortion card without success,” Gizzi added.
Other conservative writers joined in to say the results were not as bad as the left suggested. “Despite setbacks, despair is unwarranted,” concluded Jonathon Van Maren in First Things magazine. John McCormack, the Washington correspondent for National Review, described the results as “messy” but noted that there was no evidence Senate candidates paid a price for embracing a 15-week federal abortion ban. “For all the disappointment some Republicans felt on election night, a clean sweep for incumbent GOP governors was no small thing,” he added. “By protecting the Senate filibuster at the federal level, pro-lifers ensured the survival of state laws that have taken effect since Roe … and lived themselves to fight another day.”
And rather than losing because they embraced unpopular positions on abortion, as Jensen, the gubernatorial candidate from Minnesota, asserted, some conservative writers argued candidate quality was the far more persuasive explanatory variable. “I’ll put it plainly: Donald Trump continues to be a significant drag on the GOP,” wrote Alexandra DeSanctis in the National Review. “Nearly every single one of his handpicked candidates failed or underperformed relative to other Republicans, in an economic climate highly favorable to the GOP. That’s the story of last night’s midterms.”
Other conservatives say the midterms show the need to stake out more popular positions
Not all conservatives are viewing the midterm results with rose-tinted glasses.
William Saletan, a writer for The Bulwark, a center-right news outlet, published an analysis calling abortion “decisive” in the midterms and said Republican candidates paid the price. Using national exit polls and a separate study overseen by the Associated Press, Saletan concluded the Dobbs decision influenced which candidates people voted for, and whether they voted at all. “Politically, the result is clear,” he wrote. “Most voters are pro-choice. They don’t like what the Court did.”
Several pieces argued the results reflect the weaknesses of the anti-abortion movement. In an op-ed entitled “Pro-lifers were the midterms’ biggest losers,” writer Ben Kew said the results show “hardline abortion restrictions” will hurt Republicans, and one solution could be to rally behind the “safe, legal, and rare” position espoused by Clinton. “Yet in these febrile and divided political times, anyone expecting an amicable compromise is likely to be in for a very rude awakening,” he concluded pessimistically.
Aaron Renn, who runs a Substack focused on Christianity and politics, said the anti-abortion movement is “dead in the water” and emphasized the degree of actual support from Republican legislators has been vastly inflated in the past. “Conservative Christians need to understand that the majority of the public simply does not agree with their social positions,” he wrote. “This is going to be a painful adjustment for a lot of people who are used to thinking of themselves as a ‘moral majority.’”
To stay politically relevant going forward, some anti-abortion writers urged their allies to seek “compromise and credible commitment to supporting women and children” as Patrick Brown wrote in America magazine. This might require anti-abortion advocates to downgrade their absolutist goals. “Republicans will have to figure how to get half a loaf on this issue because trying to get a whole loaf will cause the oven to explode in their faces,” wrote Ross Kaminsky in the Spectator.
The Wall Street Journal was even more blunt with its midterm assessment. “Independent voters in swing states may be unhappy with the direction of the country, but they didn’t trust the GOP enough to give them power,” the paper’s influential editorial board wrote. “Abortion seems to have been one factor that cut against the GOP this year, and the pro-life party will have to adjust its policy and message for 2024.”
Some anti-abortion leaders say the problem was they were outspent by opponents, and were disadvantaged by a biased media landscape
There were wide spending gaps between anti- and pro-abortion rights activists, and conservatives focused on those in their post-mortems. “During this general election, Democrats spent an unprecedented $391 million on abortion-focused TV ads alone, compared with only $11 million on the GOP side — outspending them more than 35-to-1,” wrote Dannenfelser in Fox News. In Michigan, the pro-choice coalition organizing to pass a ballot measure raised more than $40 million, more than double the $16.9 million the anti-abortion coalition fundraised.
Lila Grace Rose, president of the anti-abortion group Live Action, reacted to the abortion rights ballot measures by saying the results showed “the need to redouble our efforts of education & persuasion on the value of human life” and to “match & exceed the reach & resources of the abortion industry.”
The advantage in spending, anti-abortion leaders argued, was coupled with lies perpetuated by Democrats and the media.
“We need to recognize that voters are regularly lied to about abortion policy, and Republicans don’t do enough to counter those lies,” wrote DeSanctis in National Review, arguing voters in Michigan were presented with an inaccurate picture of the stakes of the abortion rights ballot measure. “For Democrats who spent millions casting their opponents as heartless villains who don’t care if women die, and were met with silence or a weak response, lying worked,” added Dannenfelser.
Van Maren said pro-choice activists had adopted the same misleading playbook as reproductive rights activists used in Ireland. “A relentless torrent of newspaper stories, commercials, and social media ads hammered this simple narrative: Vote for abortion, or women will die,” he wrote. “Pro-lifers pushed back on these claims, but their rebuttals did not receive the same coverage.”
The anti-abortion movement frames their post-Roe efforts as a decades-long project
Many anti-abortion leaders say publicly they are not too worried about the results of the election and predict Dobbs outrage will fade the further away from the decision the country gets. While direct-democracy ballot measures proved a tough vehicle for anti-abortion advocates, they for now take solace that voters seem open to electing anti-choice politicians.
“The midterms were disappointing, but not terrible for pro-lifers,” said Brad Mattes, president of the Life Issues Institute. “Overturning Roe was one generational struggle, persuading people about the evil of abortion is the next generational struggle.”
Ramesh Ponnuru, a National Review editor, predicted after the midterms that most Republicans will keep saying they are pro-life when pressed but won’t talk about the issue much, and others “may now put a higher premium on prudence” in their rhetoric and anti-abortion governance.
Van Maren urged his anti-abortion movement to lean into “victim photography” going forward to show the public gruesome images that could change their mind on abortion. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said the midterm ballot measure losses convinced her that more focus needs to be on the federal level. “Like other injustices our nation faced in our past,” she tweeted, “some states will just refuse to acknowledge human rights and progress.”