Democrats’ hopes rise for midterms amid backlash over abortion access

After months of bracing for staggering losses, Democrats are suddenly filled with a sense of optimism that the 2022 midterm elections could defy historical precedent and see them perform strongly, especially by highlighting the Republican threat to abortion rights.

On Tuesday night, Democrat Pat Ryan defeated Republican Mark Molinaro in a fiercely contested special House election in New York’s Hudson Valley, in a contest that was seen as a barometer of impact of the US supreme court’s decision to end the constitutional right to an abortion.

Ryan, a combat veteran, made abortion the centerpiece of his campaign, making the case that he fought to protect American freedoms abroad only to see them stripped away at home.

By contrast, Molinaro adopted the usual Republican messaging, attempting to turn the election into a referendum on Joe Biden, the unpopular Democratic president. On the campaign trail, he focused on voters’ anxieties over inflation and crime and rarely mentioned abortion.

Outcome reveals how a brewing backlash over abortion access could dramatically reshape the American electoral landscape

“We got in this race because the foundations of our democracy were and remain under direct threat – and that is deadly serious,” Ryan said in a victory speech “When the supreme court ripped away reproductive freedoms, access to abortion rights, we said ‘this is not what America stands for.’”

The outcome reveals how a brewing backlash over abortion access could be dramatically reshaping the American electoral landscape this year.

Democrats have now outperformed Biden in four House special elections since the supreme court’s June decision in Dobbs v Jackson, and even voters in traditionally conservative Kansas overwhelmingly voted to protect abortion rights in a referendum there. Across the country, Democratic candidates have leaned into the issue and are now lashing their Republican opponents over their opposition to abortion.

Most Americans support abortion access, but the issue was rarely a motivating factor in voters’ decision. New polling suggests that is changing in the wake of the supreme court’s Dobbs decision. A new survey by Pew Research Center found that 56% of voters say the issue of abortion will be “very important” to their decision this November, up from 43% who said the same in March.

It also comes as Democrats celebrate what the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, called a “season of substance” – big legislative wins on climate and healthcare that achieve several of his party’s long-sought policy goals. Average gas prices are falling and there are signs that inflation – while still painfully high – may finally be moderating.

“Republicans can say goodbye to their ‘Red Wave’ because voters are clearly coming out in force to elect a pro-choice majority to Congress this November,” the New York congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.

Democratic primary candidate Representative Sean Patrick Maloney delivers his victory speech during an election night party in Peekskill, New York, on Tuesday. Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/AP

Maloney had another reason to celebrate on Tuesday night: the congressman soundly defeated his progressive challenger in one of several closely watched contests on Tuesday, the last major primary night of the election season.

The races in New York, Florida and Oklahoma helped set the stage for several key races that will determine control of Congress, governor’s offices and state legislatures around the country.

Though aggressive Republican gerrymandering in Florida expanded conservatives’ march in the state, Democrats hope their prospects statewide are brighter. On Tuesday, Democratic congressman Charlie Crist prevailed over a more liberal challenger to take on Republican governor Ron DeSantis.

Crist, the one-time Republican governor of Florida, has positioned himself as a unifier in the mold of Biden, a sharp contrast to DeSantis, a cultural warrior seen as a potential 2024 presidential contender. To take on Senator Marco Rubio, Democrats chose Congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief in Orlando and a rising political star in her party.

But taking on two of the biggest names in Florida – and Republican politics – will be no easy task for the Democrats in the red-leaning battleground.

“The stakes could not be any higher for this election,” Crist said in a victory speech on Tuesday night. “Our fundamental freedoms are literally on the ballot, a woman’s right to choose, democracy is on the ballot.”

Congressman Charlie Crist addresses supporters after he is announced the winner of his primary at his watch party in St Petersburg, Florida, on Tuesday. Photograph: Dirk Shadd/AP

Across Florida, several far-right candidates prevailed in a sign of Trump’s enduring influence over his party. Congressman Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in the House, won his primary despite facing a federal investigation into sex trafficking allegations.

Meanwhile, DeSantis, viewed as a potential rival to Trump in Florida, used his sway to successfully back roughly a dozen far-right local school board candidates, a move sure to roil the already fierce national debate over education policy, LGBTQ rights and teaching racism in classrooms.

In one of the fiercest intra-party contests, Congressman Jerry Nadler routed Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in a bitter primary that pitted two long-serving and powerful Democratic chairs against one another for a newly drawn Manhattan district.

The redistricting scramble in the Empire State pushed Democratic congressman Mondaire Jones, one of the first two openly gay, Black members of Congress, to run in a new district. He lost in a crowded primary on Tuesday night to Dan Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who served as the lead counsel for House Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment.

There were wins for establishment Republicans as well. In New York, Nick Langworthy, chair of the state Republican party, beat Carl Paladino, a businessman and former Republican nominee for governor with a history of racist, incendiary remarks. And in Florida, Congressman Daniel Webster held off a challenge from Laura Loomer, a far-right activist banned from Twitter for her anti-Muslim posts.

In conservative Oklahoma, a Trump-backed congressman, Markwayne Mullin, won a runoff election to become the Republican nominee in the race to succeed the retiring Republican senator James Inhofe.

Progressives prevailed in a contentious Florida primary with the nomination of Maxwell Alejandro Frost in a Democratic stronghold. Frost, 25, a liberal activist who drives Uber for extra money, would be the first Gen Z member of Congress.

In a statement, the co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus hailed Frost as a “bold, fresh progressive voice” in Congress: “Maxwell represents a generation who have grown up in the shadow of the climate crisis, economic unfairness, and gun violence and channeled that into becoming grassroots leaders and champions for progressive change.”