After being left for dead earlier in the year, momentum is behind Democratic candidates going into the midterms, and the conservative Supreme Court may be to thank.
At the beginning of the summer, a red wave was all but certain, and the attitude in Democratic and left-leaning circles was dour. Historically, the party in power always loses seats in Congress during the midterm elections. Democrats did incredibly poorly in the 2021 elections: losing the Virginia governorship and nearly losing New Jersey’s. In each election since World War II, the president’s party has lost seats in the House of Representatives, with two exceptions in 1998 (backlash against the Republican attempt to impeach Clinton) and 2002 (aftermath of 9/11 attacks).
Midterms are a referendum on the party in power and, specifically, the actions the President and Congress have taken. What makes this midterm different is that the decision with the most impact was not made by the Democratic President or Congress, but by the Republican-controlled Supreme Court. By transforming the midterm elections into a referendum on Dobbs v. Jackson, Democrats may break with historical trends and hold their Congressional majorities. If they do so, Democrats have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pass transformational legislation.
Since late July, President Joe Biden’s approval rating has risen nearly five points in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate presidential approval poll to a 42.8% approval rating, marking the first substantial rise during his presidential term. According to FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot polling tracker, voters across the US want Democrats in Congress over Republicans by just over one point, as of September 19th.
Not only are the polls going up for Democrats, but they started winning special elections they weren’t expected to. In a special election for New York’s 19th congressional district (NY-19) on August 24th, Democratic candidate Pat Ryan won with 51.1% of the vote. Polling showed the Republican candidate, Marcus Molinaro, winning by anywhere from three to thirteen points. In Alaska, Mary Peltola became the first Democratic candidate elected to the House of Representatives since 1972 and the first Alaskan Native to be elected to the House of Representatives. There are a lot of things that can be credited for this change, but the reversal of Roe v. Wade inarguably altered the electoral landscape.
There have been other explanations for the Democratic Party's surge in August, which include gas prices dropping from the highest recorded national average of $5.01 in early June to $3.76 as of September 7th. Democrats in Congress passed the largest investment in the climate to date, and worked across the aisle to pass bipartisan bills on gun violence prevention, expanding veterans’ healthcare, and supporting domestic manufacturing. The Biden administration announced its plan to forgive up to $20,000 in individual student loans through executive action.
However, none of those policies are as momentous as the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in their Dobbs v. Jackson decision. The decision revoked the previously established constitutional right to abortion and gave legal permission for states to restrict the bodily autonomy of their citizens. If Democrats win, or even lose by less this fall, Dobbs v. Jackson is why.
Republicans have made being anti-abortion a central tenet of their party for decades, with the party platform in 1980 stating, “we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.” Having finally overturned Roe, the Republican Party may be the dog who caught the car. Support for abortion rights has risen since the Dobbs decision came out, with 60% of Americans saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 55% in March, and only 6% of Americans saying it should be illegal in all cases, down from 11%. In Kansas, a state where Donald Trump won 56% of the vote in 2020, 59% of voters elected to keep the right to an abortion enshrined in their constitution. This fall, abortion is on the ballot in swing states like Michigan, where incumbent Democratic governors are the only thing standing between a pro-choice population and a gerrymandered pro-life legislature.
There are less than fifty days until election day and right now, momentum is behind the Democrats. With post-Dobbs horror stories continuing to surface in the news, like the10-year-old who had to cross state lines to get an abortion, or the woman who bled for over a week after a miscarriage because emergency room staff refused to act, the optics are not improving for the GOP. This spring and early summer, the question was not whether Republicans would regain control of Congress, but how large their majority would be. This fall, voters are seeing the consequences of Republican policies in action and the devastating consequences that result from them. Whether or not that’s enough to stop the power of history is up to voters this fall.
Anna Hickey is a fourth-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. They are a Managing Editor for the American Agora.