The Issues at Play in the First Post-Roe Midterm Elections

The economy, abortion, Trump and Biden have taken center stage in the upcoming voting.

Voting stickers sit on a a table during Primary Election Day on Aug. 23, 2022 in New York.
Voting stickers sit on a a table during Primary Election Day on Aug. 23, 2022 in New York. (photo: Yuki Iwamura / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — The upcoming midterm elections will clarify the priorities of U.S. voters in a polarized political environment with a historically unpopular president and record-high inflation rates.

The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade could prove a factor in some races, as Democratic candidates embrace pro-abortion rhetoric. Another element in these elections is the influence of former President Donald Trump with his endorsement of unconventional candidates in key swing states.

According to recent polling from Pew Research Center, the economy still ranks as the top issue for 77% of voters, followed by gun policy at 66%, and with 60% naming violent crime. Other prominent issues included health care (60%), voting policies (59%), education (58%), Supreme Court appointments (58%) and abortion (56%).

Abortion was a top issue for 43% of voters in March, Pew noted, saying the 13-percentage-point rise was due almost entirely to Democrats, as “71% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters rate abortion as very important; fewer than half (46%) said this in March. By contrast, views among Republicans and GOP leaners have shown almost no change since then (41% now, 40% then).”

A recent NBC poll had similar findings about economic concerns topping the list of issues for voters, with 16% citing “cost of living” and 14% citing “jobs and the economy” as their most important issues. “Threats to democracy” was ranked by 21% of voters as a top concern, and 8% of voters said abortion was.

Partisan Differences

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Washington Post opinion columnist, told the Register that the top issues in the midterms differ for three sets of voters. “For Republicans, it’s immigration and the economy. For Democrats, it’s abortion and things like climate change and gun control,” he said, “and for Independents, it’s almost all about the economy and the inflation rate.”

In the Pew survey, health care, gun policy and abortion were the top issues for Democrats, while the economy, violent crime and immigration were the top Republican concerns. A July poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that inflation, including rising gas prices, was the top issue, at 77%, for Independents, followed by 59% concerned with gun violence.

Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, told the Register that, according to most polling, the economy is the main issue for voters, which is unsurprising, given that “we’ve been into high inflation for a pretty good period of time, and there’s lots of talk about the onset of a recession.”

Olsen said that the overturning of Roe has “elevated abortion among Democrats,” which will “help motivate Democrats to come to the polls, and that will minimize the turn-out advantage that the party that doesn’t control the White House usually has in the midterms.” However, he added that “it’s not yet clear whether it’s going to matter for Independent voters or not this autumn.”

Philpott noted that “we’re seeing the highest number of abortion-related ballot measures on the ballots in history since Roe v. Wade, and there seems to be a lot of effort on both sides of the spectrum to pass laws to either restrict or allow abortion right after this decision.”

A record number of five states have abortion-related measures on their ballots in the November midterm elections. He said that in states where the issue is “not directly on the ballot, in terms of a ballot measure, it is hotly contested” and “especially on the left, a lot of candidates are mentioning it and making it an issue,” as they’re “doing this betting that it really will be an issue.”

Presidential Popularity

President Joe Biden’s unpopularity may be another factor in the midterm elections. Olsen called Biden, whose Gallup approval rating ticked up from a historic low of 38% in July to 44%, “a drag on the Democratic ticket,” adding that “typically those sort of ratings are followed by significant losses by the party in power.”

He said one important question is whether those “who voted for Biden last time but don’t think he’s doing a good job” will give the Democratic Party another chance or whether they will say “it’s time to send them a message.”

Olsen said that “it’s very difficult in modern politics to run more than three or four points ahead of your president job-approval rating, so if near Election Day President Biden is still in the low 40s in all of these swing states, it’s going to be very hard for Democrats to win a majority.” He said that one thing to watch is “how voters who somewhat disapprove of President Biden are talking about voting on the generic ballot.”

He noted in a recent column that Politico polling data on the generic congressional ballot “shows congressional Democrats getting 95 percent support among Biden’s strong approvers, which is in line with past results. It also shows the party running at the high end of historic ranges among weak approvers (81 percent of whom say they will vote for a Democrat in November) and strong disapprovers (6 percent say the same). Most important, the poll shows congressional Democrats actually leading among Biden’s weak disapprovers by a 7-point margin, 42 percent to 35 percent. This showing is the biggest reason why the poll shows Democrats ahead by 4 points.”

However, he wrote that “unless Biden’s job approval ratings tick up appreciably, his party will need to win a plurality of the vote among weak Biden disapprovers to have a shot, both nationally for the House and in each closely contested Senate race. The president’s party, however, has lost among this group by at least 20 points in every midterm House generic ballot exit poll since 2006.”

Unconventional Candidates

Republican candidates without conventional political backgrounds, like Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and author J.D. Vance in Ohio, are another factor in these midterms. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., commented, “I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate” at an event in August, saying that “candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”

“Republican primary voters clearly wanted people who don’t have a political background, and they got them in many of the key swing races,” Olsen said, “but what that means is they also got people who don’t have political experience, which often means fundraising shortfalls.” He said that “it’s not de facto disqualifying, but it means that these candidates aren’t consolidating the Republican-leaning vote as quickly as a more experienced Republican might have, and that’s posing concerns for people like Sen. McConnell.”

Philpott said that, in some ways, Trump’s “political future is in the balance” in these midterms, with his endorsements of these unconventional candidates in key states, and “if he wins those, that could really bolster his reputation. If he loses those, he could end up looking like he’s really losing influence.”

“The big question for Trump,” he said, “is: How much influence does he have in the swing states? If he’s seen as being a liability, that could really sink him” in terms of a 2024 presidential run, but, “if, on the other hand, he’s seen as a kingmaker, that puts him in good stead.” He added that, currently, in Congress the Democrats have control by “razor-thin margins,” and “the stakes are high.”

Trump himself has also remained in the news, with the FBI’s raid of his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida due to an investigation into the handling of classified presidential documents. Many GOP candidates backed Trump and called the raid an example of government overreach. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 52% of registered voters viewed the FBI action as “part of a legal and proper investigation to determine whether former President Trump was involved in any wrongdoing,” while 41% viewed it as “just another example of the endless witch hunt and harassment the Democrats and Biden administration continue to pursue against former President Trump.” Overall, 51% of voters said the search would not impact their likelihood of voting in the midterms, but among Republicans, 64% said it would make them more likely to vote.

Abortion Messaging

Philpott said that given the loss of the pro-life Value Them Both Amendment in Kansas and the success of Democrat Pat Ryan using pro-abortion messaging in a special election for Congress in a New York district, “it does seem that, at least in some districts, in some places,” candidates on the left are succeeding with pro-abortion messaging.

Some Republican candidates in key races have been accused of toning down their language around abortion after winning their primary races. In Arizona, GOP Senate nominee Blake Masters removed language saying “I am 100% pro-life” from his website, according to NBC News.

The pro-life group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America backed Masters, and the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said in a statement that he “rightfully centered his position on what is achievable now at the federal level: a limit on abortions at a point by which the unborn child can feel excruciating pain.”

Mallory Carroll, the vice president of communications at SBA Pro-Life America, told the Register that, post-Dobbs, it’s important for pro-life candidates to advance legislation that “saves lives and is politically salient in this moment.” She said that “it’s going to be up to lawmakers to identify where consensus exists, depending on which legislative body or which state they’re representing,” and “things are going to look different from state to state.”

Philpott said that in addition to the abortion issue, Catholics voters should be aware of “social legislation regarding restrictions on Catholic conscience and religious freedom.”

Concerns for Catholic Voters

He said that issue is important, as the Democratic majority in Congress came close to passing legislation like the Equality Act, which passed the House last year.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote last year that the measure would “punish faith-based charities such as shelters and foster-care agencies, and in turn their thousands of beneficiaries, simply because of their beliefs on marriage and sexuality.”

Philpott pointed out that only two Democratic lawmakers stood in the way of that bill passing Congress: Sens. Joe Manchin, W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, Ariz., who were unwilling to abolish the legislative filibuster to push through such a measure.

They have repeatedly stated their opposition to removing the legislative filibuster, which would make the required 60-vote majority on such legislation a simple 51-vote majority.

They also rejected President Biden’s suggestion to abolish the filibuster to codify Roe legislatively following the Dobbs decision.

Philpott added that education is another important issue, as “what we’re seeing in the public schools is more and more of an effort to impose radical curricula on sexuality, on critical race theory; and polls show that a large number of Catholics are concerned about the role of parents in the schools.”

A July EWTN poll conducted by RealClear Politics found that 90% of likely Catholic voters “believe parents should have more information about their child’s school curriculum,” and “65% of likely Catholic voters believe parents should play a role in helping to determine what is taught in schools.”

Thirty-three percent of likely Catholic voters “have considered education alternatives for their children due to their school’s emphasis on gender identity.”

In Florida, 25 of the 30 school board members endorsed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won or advanced in their races, “campaigning on parental rights, transparency, school choice and safety,” The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board recently noted.

“COVID restrictions awakened parents to the failings of too many public schools and their entrenched union control,” they wrote. “If Republicans want a positive message for the midterms, this is a good and popular one.”

A Transformation Opportunity

Joseph Capizzi, a theologian at The Catholic University of America and director of CUA’s Institute for Human Ecology, told the Register that, ahead of the midterms, “more and more people (and especially Catholics) are worried about the character of the country and their place in it.”

He said that this uncertainty about the country’s character, what President Biden calls “the soul of the nation,” provides people of faith “an opportunity to transform the country for the better.”

Regarding the issue on the minds of most voters — the economy — he said that discussion is “an opportunity for us to show how economic questions impact families in every sense: the desirability of marrying and having families, family size, the education of one’s children, the care of the elderly.”

Capizzi said, “Our faith reveals a connectedness to these issues that can provide fresh ways of approaching them.”

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