The Supreme Court's controversial decision on abortion has put the issue of women's rights high on the political agenda ahead of the midterm elections. In races for Congress and state governorships, women running for office are shaping outcomes and are more diverse than ever. However, three snapshots from these elections illustrate that the link between more female candidates and women’s rights is far from straightforward.
Women feature prominently in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s historic decision on abortion is a watershed moment for women’s rights. Female candidates incorporate this issue in their campaigns in different ways.
In its June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court declared that abortion is not a constitutionally protected right - the culmination of years of pro-life lobbying. Dobbs has exacerbated political differences and heightened polarization in the United States, making abortion into a key issue in the Democratic and Republican midterm campaigns. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Supreme Court ruling has increased their motivation to vote of more than half of voters. The same poll found abortion to be the single issue most likely to drive voters to the polls in November.
Concurrently, these elections have set records in terms of the number of diverse female candidates for both parties. More Black and Latina women are running for Congress than ever before. In gubernatorial races, there have never been more female candidates. These candidates’ interaction with the hot topic of reproductive rights mirrors their different cultural and political backgrounds as much as those of their constituencies.
The Latina ‘red wave’ in the House of Representatives, the senatorial contests in North Carolina and Nevada, and the gubernatorial campaigns in Oregon and Georgia showcase how female candidates balance their stances on reproductive rights with major issues such as the economy and crime. An analysis of these races highlights how the presence of female candidates does not imply that women’s rights will be front and center in campaigns. Far from providing predictable answers, the female race for the midterms mirrors the tensions which animate the United States at a critical time in its history.
The House of Representatives: Year of the Conservative Latina?
With all 435 seats up for election, the House of Representatives midterm race features the largest pool of candidates, 259 of whom are women (178 Democrats and 81 Republicans). This number is lower than in the 2020 midterms, but Black and Latina women set new records for representation. With an eye to the positive results during the presidential elections by Donald Trump in areas with a large Latino population, the Republicans have increased their efforts to appeal to this constituency, which is the fastest growing demographic group in the United States. This is part of a wider strategy to boost diversity, which has been in place since the defeat of Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2012. Back then, the Republican Party acknowledged in its post-election ‘autopsy’ report that, “[w]e need to campaign among Hispanic, black (sic), Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too.”
Female Republican candidates with Hispanic roots have made a splash in the primaries, and 43 of them will be on the ballot in November. Many of these candidates emphasize their commitment to conservative ideals as inherent to their Latina identity. Anna Paulina Luna in Florida’s 13th Congressional District is an Air Force veteran, whose top priorities are fighting illegal migration and inflation. In Virginia’s seventh District, Yesli Vega describes herself as, “Military Wife. Mother. Law Enforcement Officer.” Mayra Flores, who flipped Texas’ Latino-majority and historically Democratic 34th District during a special election in June, frequently appeals to the concept of the American Dream. These candidates run in districts with large Hispanic populations, many of which have long voted for the Democratic Party, emphasizing how conservative ideals blend in better with their culture than liberal values do. Appealing to tradition, they infuse their messaging with faith-based appeals and frame themselves as mothers, wives, and caretakers committed to achieving advancements for their community. With regard to abortion, these women anchor their opposition to the practice in their identity as family-driven and God-fearing members of the Latino community.
In some ways, the Latina ‘red wave’ is an answer to the growing concerns expressed by Hispanic voters who feel that the Democratic Party has taken them for granted and that it treats them as an indistinct unit. Throughout the campaign, Republicans have put the spotlight on issues such as the economy and inflation, which concern Latino voters the most. This voting base traditionally views Democratic issues such as climate change, gun control, and voting policy as less important. According to the Economist, abortion is ‘very important’ to a growing number of Latinos, but still only slightly more than half (57%). Data from the Pew Research Center shows that the majority of Latinos still support the Democrats – however, less than half see a significant difference between the two major parties. Latinos therefore represent a key swing vote with the ability to influence not just the coming midterm elections, but future presidential races as well. The Republicans hope to create a new generation of Congresswomen. Candidates like Luna, Vega, and Flores relate to key constituencies through shared cultural values and appeal to concerns that overshadow the relevance of reproductive rights in the Latino community.
Creating a united, diverse and female face for the Republican Party could help restructure traditional party alliances among minority groups in the United States. The power of representation and highlighting the specific concerns of a community may help the Republicans overcome the unpopularity of the Dobbs decision. In a moment when the Supreme Court ruling could benefit Democrats by mobilizing pro-choice voters, the relevance of these initiatives should not be underestimated.
The Senate: Balancing Economic Concerns with the Right to Choose
The stakes are high for Democrats in the midterm elections. Their ability to pass legislation in the Senate currently hinges on a majority of one vote (that of the Vice President, who has the tie-breaking say in the Senate). In addition to concerns over reproductive rights, Senate candidates need to address the economic hardships of voters caused by rising inflation rates and global supply chain disruptions. In certain races, they need to dial down their progressive stances on abortion rights to appeal to centrist and unaffiliated voters.
Republicans have occupied the North Carolina Senate seat that is up for reelection for decades. Meanwhile, the Southeastern state, with its innovative economy and many universities, is seeing a rapid increase in diverse Gen Z and millennial voters. This opens up the opportunity for Democrat Cheri Beasley to make history as the first female African American Senator to represent the state. To make this dream reality, she has to appeal to North Carolina’s two million unaffiliated voters, many of them in the rural part of the state.
Beasley has emphasized economic issues, especially those that are relevant to rural North Carolinian farmers. She has stressed the importance of legalizing marijuana in North Carolina, hoping to appeal to rural voters, who have been excluded from this lucrative market. Simultaneously, the state is seeing a steady decline in access to abortion. Beasley has framed a woman’s right to choose as a cornerstone of democracy. She personalized this sentiment by recalling the enfranchisement of her mother, stating: “If my late mother were here, who was granted the right to vote because of the Voting Rights Act, she would tell us that every election is the most important election of our lifetimes.”
Beasely is also facing continuous attempts from her opponent Ted Budd to tarnish her history as a judge. However, her professional background could serve her well in appealing to the voters of North Carolina. Democratic representative David Price has characterized Beasley as having a “judicial temperament”. Such a demeanor of impartiality might be an advantage as she is balancing an increasingly complex and polarized North Carolinian voting pool.
In Nevada, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, who has Mexican roots, made history by winning the 2016 Congressional election as the first Latina Senator. Even though the state has voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections, she cannot be too confident. The former Senate majority leader Harry Reid endorsed her candidacy. Now, she is the Democratic senator most at risk of losing her seat, leading to a possible Republican majority in the Senate.
Cortez Masto is struggling to solve her state's economic problems, exacerbated by the pandemic and the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine. The entertainment and tourism industries in Las Vegas and Reno are cornerstones of Nevada’s economy and represent some of the state’s most affected enterprises. Revenues from these sectors have not kept up with rising inflation rates, and workers are shouldering the burden. Nevadan voters, especially the working-class Latino population that accounts for approximately 20% of voters, are demanding solutions.
Nevada is a pro-choice state that has codified abortion rights in a referendum in 1990. However, Cortez Masto’s Republican contender Adam Laxalt, a former governor and senator, has vowed to introduce a national law to ban abortion in the Senate. Although the right to access abortions is a concern of the Nevadan Democratic base, Cortez Masto cannot ignore the economic woes of unaffiliated voters, who will decide the election outcome.
The Governor’s Race: Battleground for Reproductive Rights
Congressional elections traditionally overshadow the gubernatorial races. However, all bets are off since the Dobbs decision. The Supreme Court has made reproductive rights a state issue, giving governors significant power over women's access to abortion. The Republican governors of conservative strongholds Indiana and West Virginia have already signed the first post-Roe abortion bans. Suddenly, the 2022 elections of governors in 36 U.S. states are a battleground for women's rights. At the same time, these elections set a new record for female representation, with 25 women running for office. The states of Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, and Oregon will have all-female races - more than in any previous election.
The Supreme Court's decision is also affecting each party's campaigns. The August 2022 referendum in Kansas, where voters overwhelmingly rejected an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution, left Democrats feeling more confident. The party's gubernatorial candidates have invested heavily in advertisement campaigns carrying a simple message: the Democratic Party will preserve access to abortion. Meanwhile, Republicans avoid expressing strong conservative stances on this topic by shifting the spotlight to issues like the economy and crime.
The campaign in the Northwestern state of Oregon cast doubt on whether the abortion issue is decisive enough to win an election. Three female candidates are competing: Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and Independent Betsy Johnson. Oregon politics are split between the liberal cities on the coast and the conservative hinterland to the east. As the progressive West is more populated, Oregon has a long tradition of voting Democratic and features one of the most liberal abortion laws. Narrow poll results, however, indicate that the party's hegemony is crumbling. The unpopularity of current Democratic Governor Kate Brown is taking its toll. Kotek's explicit warnings that her Republican challenger wants to restrict reproductive rights do not seem to change that. Her pro-life opponent Drazan remains strategically vague about her agenda on reproductive rights. Instead, she attacks the incumbent’s unpopular policies on education, crime and homelessness. Therefore, it is unclear what a Republican victory would really mean for Oregon – other than a major blow to Democrats on the West Coast.
Reproductive rights are also an important issue for candidate Stacey Abrams from the Southern state of Georgia. The African American Democrat, who was once critical of abortion because of her religious upbringing, is now an outspoken advocate for women's bodily autonomy. Many Southern progressives see her as an “avatar of hope”, especially after Georgia narrowly voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election - for the first time since 1996. Besides women's rights, Abrams' campaign also emphasizes the importance of social mobility, racial justice and fair voting rights. She previously ran for the governor’s office in 2018. Although Republican Brian Kemp ultimately won the race, she was able to mobilize many black voters. Women of color have always been underrepresented among gubernatorial candidates. If Stacey Abrams wins the race this year, she could become the first Black female governor of the United States. The polls, in which she consistently trails her competitor Kemp, dim those hopes. But in an interview with NPR, Fordham University professor Christina Greer, whose research focuses on Black candidates in U.S. politics, is certain: even in the event of a loss, she will “figure out a different strategy on how to do the work."
As with the race for Congress, reproductive rights are clearly a hot topic ahead of this year's gubernatorial election. Democratic campaigns promise to preserve the right to choose. However, the contested elections in Oregon and Georgia show that this stance alone will not be enough to win an election.