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Democrats this fall are trying to buck history in the midterm elections by staying in control of Congress – and party leaders see abortion rights as the way to pull it off.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, empowering state legislatures to ban abortion, the Democratic Party has put unprecedented resources into making this year’s midterm elections a referendum on abortion access. As of the end of September, Democrats have already invested over $124 million in abortion-related television advertising — close to 20 times the amount the party spent on abortion ads during the previous midterm elections in 2018. 

All of that spending is for a reason: They’re fighting an uphill battle against historical trends.

Typically, midterm elections are not favorable to the political party in control of the presidency. Since the end of World War II, the president’s party has lost congressional seats in all but two midterm elections. On average, the party in the White House loses about 26 seats in the House each midterm. If President Biden and the Democrats lose that many seats, they will lose control of the chamber.

Abortion-rights demonstrators shout slogans after tying green flags to a fence at the White House during a protest to pressure the Biden administration to act and protect abortion rights, in Washington, July 9, 2022. 

Jose Luis Magana / AP

The Supreme Court’s decision, however, might flip the usual script. While Republicans in the past have often leveraged abortion to motivate their voters, Democrats are now more likely to say abortion is important to their vote — sometimes by a significant margin. 

In Pennsylvania, for example, the CBS News Battleground Tracker found that 70% of voters who support the Democratic Senate candidate, John Fetterman, say abortion is important to their vote. In comparison, just 30% of voters supporting Republican candidate Mehmet Oz responded the same way. 

Republicans still lead in the polls nationally, but Democrats have outperformed expectations in special elections held this summer and steadily improved in the polls since June. In New York’s 19th Congressional District, considered a tossup, Democrat Pat Ryan made abortion a central issue in the August special election and won, keeping the seat under Democratic control. 

Ryan tweeted after his victory, “Choice was on the ballot. Freedom was on the ballot, and tonight choice and freedom won. We voted like our democracy was on the line because it is. We upended everything we thought we knew about politics and did it together.

Members of pro-abortion rights groups, such as the non-partisan Women’s March political action committee (PAC), see these Democratic victories as evidence that voters in this year’s midterms might not behave as history suggests.

Abortion-rights demonstrators shout slogans after tying green flags to a fence at the White House during a protest to pressure the Biden administration to act and protect abortion rights, in Washington, July 9, 2022. 

Jose Luis Magana / AP

“We’re not surprised,” Rachel Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March PAC, told CBS News. “Our analysis was always that this was a moment where the GOP was overplaying its hand.”

According to Vote.org, after the Supreme Court released its decision, the site saw a 332% increase in the next two weeks in users visiting to register to vote when compared to the previous two weeks. A representative for the same site said that 11 states, including battleground states like Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, saw voter registration increases of over 500% during that period.

One of those 11 states, Kansas, also experienced a major electoral upset soon after the Supreme Court’s decision. During an August referendum, voters in the Republican-dominated state chose to protect abortion rights in the Kansas Constitution in an unexpected 18-point landslide. The question had been put on the ballot before the Dobbs decision. 

“We got confirmation from the Kansas results that women are going to be a force to be reckoned with this fall,” Carmona said. “Personal freedom for women is a galvanizing issue for folks in a way that transcends politics.”

Still, that victory in August for abortion advocates is no guarantee that they’ll prevail in November, since abortion is not directly on the ballot in every state.

Republican candidates aren’t approaching abortion in the same way. Some, including House candidates in Michigan, North Carolina and Colorado, have erased language referencing anti-abortion stances from their campaign websites. In Arizona, GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters, who won a primary against a more moderate opponent in August, removed a section of his site supporting a federal abortion ban, as well as a description calling Masters “100% pro-life.”

Other prominent Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Vice President Mike Pence, have interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision as a victory whose next logical step is a nationwide ban. “I’m convinced,” Pence said in an interview with RealClearPolitics, “that enthusiasm among pro-life Americans in states across the country is equal to, or greater than, any new motivation by people that support abortion rights.”

Voters in five states will weigh in directly on the question of abortion access this fall. Ballot measures in California, Michigan and Vermont will let voters decide whether to enshrine the right to an abortion in their respective states’ constitutions, while voters in Kentucky will choose whether their constitution explicitly does not protect abortion. Montana residents, meanwhile, will choose whether to adopt a law to criminally penalize health care providers “who do not act to preserve the life of such infants, including infants born during an attempted abortion.”

Democrats hope that these referendums will replicate what happened in Kansas, propelling voters to the polls for both the issue and their candidates. Republican leaders, meanwhile, are largely trying to shift voters’ attention toward inflation, suggesting party strategists see abortion rights issues as an electoral liability. 

In House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s recently unveiled “Commitment to America” policy plan, abortion rights received only a single line promising to “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.” 

Still, Mr. Biden has latched onto the GOP’s position in his recent speeches. “Look at what they’ve actually done,” the president said at a Democratic National Committee event in Washington on Sept. 23. “The MAGA Republicans just cheered and embraced the first Supreme Court decision in our entire history — the first in our entire history that just didn’t fail to preserve a constitutional freedom, but actually took away a fundamental right.”