Post-Roe Midterms: Pro-Lifers Look Ahead After Ballot-Measure Losses, Narrow Gains in House

Strategy and messaging are being reevaluated after Election Day.

A staff member waits as a lectern is prepared during an election night watch party for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after the midterm elections, early on November 9, 2022, in Washington, DC.
A staff member waits as a lectern is prepared during an election night watch party for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after the midterm elections, early on November 9, 2022, in Washington, DC. (photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — The first midterm elections after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June yielded some disappointing results for pro-lifers, as abortion advocates prevailed in all five state ballot measures on the issue, including in Montana and Kentucky. 

And according to both pro-life leaders and pro-abortion-rights activists and politicians, the poor performance in the midterm ballot races indicated that pro-abortion messaging and tactics resonated far more effectively with voters than did the messages communicated by the pro-life side.

Pro-lifers “were outplayed by the other side. We need to up our game,” Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, told the Register about the ballot-measure outcomes. “We need to be better prepared, better organized. We need to do better messaging. We need to raise a lot more money.”

California, Michigan and Vermont all passed ballot measures to enshrine a right to abortion into their state constitutions on Tuesday. 

In Kentucky, which currently bars abortion with life-of-the-mother exceptions, voters rejected a measure 52.3% to 47.7% that would add language to the state constitution saying, “To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.” 

Montana voters rejected a measure 52.4% to 47.6% that would have established that “infants born alive at any stage of development are legal persons, and require medical care to be provided for any infant born alive after an attempted abortion, induced labor, or other method.” 

The “red wave” predicted by some also did not happen in Congress, but there were some hopeful outcomes for the pro-life cause, as Republican candidates appear to have won a narrow majority in the House. Control of the Senate will likely be by a slim 51-vote majority and will depend on the outcome of the Georgia Senate race as it heads to a December runoff election. 

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, was optimistic about the likely slim pro-life majority in the U.S. House of Representatives being able to safeguard against extreme abortion legislation from the Biden administration and a possibly Democratic-controlled Senate. Given the White House and Senate makeup, pro-lifers “would have very little success in passing pro-life measures,” she acknowledged, but a pro-life House majority “also means Democrats are not able to pass the so-called Women’s Health Protection Act to wipe out virtually all federal and state laws protecting unborn babies.”


Pro-Abortion Money and Message

Unlike previous election cycles, the demise of Roe appeared to have galvanized “pro-choice” voters to prioritize abortion as an election issue more than pro-life voters. 

“Exit polls conducted by the television networks and Edison Research showed that in Pennsylvania abortion overtook the economy as the top issue on voters’ minds, and in Michigan, nearly half of all voters said abortion was their top issue,” The New York Times noted in a post-election analysis titled, “How Democrats Used the Abortion Debate to Hold Off a Red Wave.”

The Times also noted that Democrats flooded the political airwaves with a “tsunami of advertising nationwide. In total, Democrats spent nearly half a billion dollars on ads mentioning abortion, more than twice what they spent on the second-closest issue, crime, according to AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm.”

In terms of specific messaging, Democrats and pro-abortion activists focused on a claim that Republicans were committed to an unqualified total ban on abortion. By so doing, they sought to deflect attention away from the fact that a strong majority of Americans continue to support restrictions against abortions after 15 weeks, according to recent polls. 

“Debating weeks is not where we want to be,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake acknowledged to the Times. “People are terrible at math and terrible at biology.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which spent $78 million backing pro-life candidates and measures in the midterms, also referenced the record amounts spent by abortion advocates this election cycle in a Nov. 9 press call. 

“They took the opportunity on the other side to spend almost half a billion dollars in these elections,” she said. “They did succeed in many ways to inspire and motivate their base. And when you spend half a billion dollars, an unprecedented amount of money, on any issue, but certainly one where an earthquake has just occurred after a 50-year precedent has been overturned, you should expect some momentum.” 

George commented that pro-lifers “are combating a massive disinformation machine — the machine that wants to tell people that either all abortions have to be permitted or you could not have lifesaving care in the case of a pregnancy that was life-threatening — and it’s just not true. It’s just a lie; but as long as the public believes that lie, as long as we don’t effectively combat that lie, the other side is going to win.” 


Modifying Pro-Life Strategies

Dannenfelser told the Register that one way she anticipated the pro-life movement can improve their strategy on ballot measures is that “we in the pro-life movement need to say what we would like to see in state law.” 

She said that, otherwise, the pro-life stance is portrayed as banning all abortions, “but the truth is different states will have different consensus” around the issue, whether that’s heartbeat bills or a 15-week limit.

Frank Cannon, a political strategist at SBA Pro-Life America, was critical of a lack of backing from Republican leadership on the ballot measure in Kentucky, noting that Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, was not in the state arguing in its favor.

“The pro-life movement has to do better,” he said. “The political element of the pro-life movement has to step up, and that is true in every area; and without that, we’re going to be in trouble.” 

Tobias told the Register that she anticipates that abortion advocates will push for additional ballot measures in other states and said that National Right to Life will work with state affiliates to increase pro-life educational efforts. 

“We’ve got too many people that don’t realize we’re talking about a separate human being, a living entity with a heartbeat and brain waves. We’re going to have to up our educational game and just be ready to fight back.” 

Tobias was particularly disappointed in the failure of the born-alive-infant-protection measure in Montana and wondered if people have become more polarized on the abortion issue. 

“It’s getting to the point where if you support abortion then the position is there should be no limits whatsoever,” she said. “And that’s really scary for me, to think that people would just not be willing to look at the unborn child in any manner as a fellow human being, even up to the moment of birth. That’s very chilling and doesn’t bode well for the future of our society.”


New Messaging

Patrick Brown, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Life and Family Initiative, told the Register that he expected the extreme pro-abortion measures in California and Vermont to pass due to the demographic makeup of those states. He saw the battle against Michigan’s initiative as “really difficult,” as well, but Kentucky “is the one that really breaks my heart.” That defeat, in a state where most abortions are illegal, “should haunt pro-lifers going forward.” 

One takeaway for Brown was that “if you have a choice on the ballot between an extreme pro-choice position and an extreme pro-life position, it seems, from Kansas, Kentucky and other states, that people are always going to end up on the extreme pro-choice position.”

Consequently, he said, discussions of abortion should include a clear outlining of exceptions and “making sure that crisis-pregnancy centers and traditional safety-net programs” that support moms are part of the conversation. “We want to remove as many of those economic pressures as we can and really put the conversation back on the question of when life begins,” he said.

“We’re now in a very different legal landscape and a different public-opinion landscape,” Brown noted.


Strong Candidates Count

Dannenfelser told reporters on the press call that the successful pro-life candidates this cycle took a clear pro-life stance in a confident manner and successfully contrasted it to their opponent’s extreme pro-abortion stance.

She cited candidates who won after taking clear pro-life stances, like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Sen.-elect Ted Budd, R-N.C.; and Sen.-elect J.D. Vance, R-Ohio. She also praised Republican governors who won after enacting strong pro-life legislation, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who “signed a heartbeat law and won by 8%. [Ohio Gov.] Mike DeWine signed a heartbeat law and won by 26%. [Texas Gov.] Greg Abbott signed the same, which was a trigger law, complete with protections, and won by nearly 12%. [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis signed a pain-capable law at 15 weeks and won by nearly 20%.”

In contrast, she criticized Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania as an example of a candidate who lost because he “hoped the issue would go away.” She said that “even though we wanted him to win, and we broke our backs trying to help him to win, he did a very poor job of saying what he would do if he were elected for the people of Pennsylvania on the life front.”

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, agreed with the need for candidates to take a strong stance on the issue in a statement Wednesday. 

“Perhaps the most important lesson from the 2022 midterm elections is that pro-life candidates’ success lies in clearly and consistently leading with their position on protections for the unborn as well as exposing the extreme and deeply unpopular agenda of their opponents — taxpayer-funded abortion up until birth,” she said. “This was even more true this cycle, when pro-life candidates were outspent 10 to 1 on the issue.” 

George said that “the Republicans would be making a bad mistake if they try to account for their losses by putting it down to abortion. That can’t explain the data of so many strong, consistent pro-life people winning.” 

He also pointed out that, in Colorado, a historically purple state that has turned blue, businessman Joe O’Dea, the Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, “was pro-abortion, and he got crushed. He didn’t get crushed because he was pro-life. He wasn’t pro-life.”


Looking Ahead

George said it was important to keep in mind that “law is a teacher,” and “one of the things that law does in any society is teach people right and wrong.” 

“What has the law been teaching Americans about human life and their rights and right and wrong when it comes to unborn babies for 50 years?” he asked. “The law has been teaching people that not only is it right to kill unborn children, they have a right to kill unborn children.”

“It’s not surprising that we in the pro-life movement are going to have to undo a lot of damage done by the false and bad teaching of the law, so it’s going to take time,” he said. “That’s going to have an impact, and it’s going to take a while to undo that damage.”