The Midterms Handed Democrats in Congress a Mandate to Codify Abortion Rights

The Democratic mantra headed into Election Day was that two things were on the ballot: democracy and abortion rights. In a stunning rebuke to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, voters turned out en masse to stun pundits, delivering a mandate to Democrats to codify abortion rights into law.

Republicans had hoped that inflation would produce a red-wave rejection of Democrats, and the media talked of little else in the run-up to the election. But the economy has continued adding jobs, with real wages at the bottom rising for the first time in generations, even as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell tightens monetary policy. Paying more for groceries and at the pump is a painful squeeze, but being unable to find a job can destroy your life. It may be that voters’ recent memory of the Great Recession undercut the potency of the former as a weapon for Democrats.

For Democrats, according to exit polls, abortion was the top concern. Of the 27 percent of all voters who prioritized the issue, Democrats carried them 3-1.

Where abortion rights were literally on the ballot, they won there too. Kansas voters had already stood up for abortion rights in August, and were joined Tuesday by voters in not just California and Vermont, but in Michigan and Kentucky, as well. The message was clear, and showed up in exit polls too, as voters said that a key driver of their vote was the fight over the right to choose.

But the question of democracy is a different matter: If Democrats eke out a House win, they have an even more clear mandate. If Republicans capture control of the House of Representatives, they would render it impossible for the next Congress to act on the will of voters when it comes to abortion rights. 

But that next Congress wouldn’t begin until January, leaving a lame duck session in between, in which newly empowered Democrats hold a majority in both chambers. Forty-eight Democrats have expressed support for a change in Senate rules that would allow a majority of senators to enact legislation codifying Roe v. Wade. Only Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, of West Virginia and Arizona, respectfully, remain holdouts.

Sinema claims to oppose the move in support of abortion rights, warning that changing the rules would make abortion too easy to ban for Republicans. That may have made sense years ago, but it’s absurd today, with Democrats staring down the prospect of not holding a legislative majority again anytime soon. Manchin’s opposition is more institutional, but the results of the election ought to put pressure on the West Virginia senator, who is a supporter of abortion rights, to rethink his position. In Pennsylvania, the one state that has been called as a flip so far, the mandate was only expanded, as voters chose Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who embraced abortion rights and has promised to reform the filibuster to allow for democracy to work in the Senate.

If Democrats, given this new mandate, don’t even try to enact the will of the voters into law during the lame duck, their future protestations that democracy is on the ballot will ring hollow. Were abortion rights and democracy on the ballot, or not?

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