the inside game

The 3 Most Important Races in the Post-Roe Midterms

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

November’s midterms are already stacked with high-stakes races. But in the days following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, three midwestern gubernatorial elections stand out to both parties’ operatives, elected officials, and candidates across the country as being the most clearly important. Not only will these contests have both immediate and long-term effects for millions, but they are certain to have an impact on the next presidential campaign — and possibly the election process as well.

The races for the governorship in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were already clear headliners because of their implications for fair elections in 2024 and beyond. Now, the factors that made that true — hard-right-wing and conspiracy-friendly GOP-led legislatures that have only been held in check by besieged Democratic executives — also apply to the right to abortion. For years, these legislatures have repeatedly passed severe anti-abortion bills and in many cases sent them to the desks of Democratic governors who vetoed them. Not only will the upcoming races for the governor’s mansions decide whether the states will commit to awarding delegates to the presidential vote winner, they’ll also determine whether millions of their citizens will lose access to abortion. Both of these dynamics are likely to play a central role in the states’ politics for the foreseeable future. And since the three are arguably the most vital battleground states in a politically split country, that means what happens in the Midwest will almost certainly not stay in the Midwest.

The decision “underscores the massive stakes in the race,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Ben Wikler of his state’s contest. And in Pennsylvania, “this conversation about being pro-choice or being anti-choice went from what has been a decades-long theoretical conversation to immediately, overnight, a very real and tangible and practical conversation,” said Josh Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general who is now the party’s gubernatorial nominee. “We are in a commonwealth where the next governor is going to essentially individually decide whether a woman can still have access to health care.”

“These states are very much in the midst of the overall cultural battleground that we have in this country today,” said veteran Democratic operative Mark Longabaugh. “They’ll be critical battleground states in 2024 — they were in ’20, and they were in ’16 — and Democrats can’t afford to lose any of those three. They’re going to be crucial this year but also moving forward.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in Pennsylvania, 2016’s tipping-point state and the one that looms largest for both Joe Biden, who grew up there, and Donald Trump, who flipped it in his first campaign before losing it (and therefore the presidency) four years later. Trump-allied Republican Doug Mastriano, a fringe legislator who has appeared at QAnon-associated events, has drawn headlines in recent weeks during his rapid rise to the nomination for his role in the January 6 riot: Not only was he at the Capitol, but he organized buses there. Yet his views on abortion are just as hard-line; the man who once shared a cartoon suggesting Roe was “so much worse” than the Holocaust has argued for a no-exception blanket ban on abortions after six weeks in the state and the criminalization of the procedure for doctors. After the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last Friday, he immediately proclaimed that Roe was “rightly relegated to the ash heap of history.”

“The stakes have gone up because these races are fundamental to protecting democracy and abortion rights, and the Republicans have fully embraced the cuckoo-banana-pants wing of the party,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “The ‘blue wall’” — in 2022, that means holding onto the governorships of these states — “is a defense of democracy, and it’s also a defense of the right to choose.”

Shapiro, who is running to succeed fellow Democrat Tom Wolf, has kept a spotlight on Mastriano’s extreme positions, but he told me this week that he believed the threat had really hit home with voters in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Shapiro recalled receiving a FaceTime call from his upset 20-year-old daughter Sophia shortly after the news broke. For months, he said, older women had been approaching him on the trail to warn him of the threat of returning to the pre-Roe era, but lately, he’s hearing from “dramatically” younger voters, in what Shapiro called “a real, seismic shift.” He saw the same thing surveying the crowd at a rally he organized in Philadelphia and booked the best online-fundraising day of his whole campaign after the decision. “We have a legislature that routinely puts bills banning abortion on the desk of the governor and will do so for the next governor,” he said on the phone last week, pledging to veto them.

A handful of states will hold straightforward votes on abortion’s legality via ballot referenda this fall, but in most cases, those will be deep red or blue states where the outcome is basically preordained. The midwestern gubernatorial contests, on the other hand, are only indirect referendums on abortion and fair elections. They are also providing a real-time test of what legislators accustomed to toiling in relative obscurity can get away with; hard-core conservatives at the local level have long pushed absolutist legislation on abortion that was certain to be brushed back by a Democratic governor. With the Dobbs decision, though, their pushes may now result in unexpected laws.

The decision has also thrown a series of archaic laws into the crosshairs of the courts and lawmakers across the states. In Wisconsin, the decision reactivated an 1849 law prohibiting abortion, and Tony Evers, the Democratic governor running for reelection, immediately joined his attorney general in asking courts to clarify the ban’s legitimacy. Evers’s state party scrambled its convention schedule to refocus on protecting abortion rights, and since then, the issue has been the first one most voters have brought up with the organization’s volunteers, Wikler said. Yet Evers faces perhaps the most radical right-wing legislature in any swing state; its appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the 2020 election only begins to tell the story of a body that also voted earlier this year to let 18-year-olds carry concealed weapons in their cars at schools. Abortion access has been tightening under state law for years, including with the imposition of mandatory counseling and ultrasounds before the procedure, and when Evers called a special session of the legislature to reverse the 173-year-old ban after the Court’s ruling, his Republican counterparts in Madison immediately rejected the call.

Politically, Evers’s bet is that voters will recognize his role as a balance for what Wikler calls “an unhinged state legislature.” On the Saturday after the ruling, he pledged clemency for anyone charged under the 19th-century prohibition and promised not to appoint prosecutors who agreed with it. His GOP opponents’ primary isn’t until August, but the leading contenders see the politics as precisely reversed: At their debate two days later, the candidates onstage agreed to fire any district attorneys who refused to enforce the 1849 law.

The comparable statute in Michigan is more recent — from 1931 — but it is no less fraught or all-encompassing. Roe’s reversal appeared to open the door to the 91-year-old abortion ban, but Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer almost immediately filed a motion with the State Supreme Court urging it to rule on the measure’s constitutionality. That the law is on pause because a May Planned Parenthood lawsuit led to an injunction offers short-term relief for Whitmer, who is running for reelection and who has spent the last few months trying to ring alarm bells about Michigan Republicans’ plans for this moment. This spring, she preemptively filed suit in case Roe was overturned, looking for a way around the dormant law.

Yet the tangle of rulings has already caused huge confusion in the state. On the Friday after the Court ruled, a major Michigan hospital system said it would restrict abortion care to lifesaving cases only to reverse itself the next day. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell told me that many voters had come to her to express bewilderment and dismay as she visited town festivals that weekend. “Clearly people who didn’t care about politics, who were sick of everything, are suddenly waking up,” she said. “Reality is settling in.”

Dingell, who last fall got into a well-publicized shouting match on the Capitol stairs with Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene when the Republican started heckling Democrats celebrating a vote to protect abortion rights, said — like Shapiro in Pennsylvania — that she’d been hearing from older women warning about a return to a pre-Roe wilderness for months. On Saturday and Sunday, though, younger voters swarmed her, too.

Whitmer wasted no time in underlining the stakes of the Supreme Court’s decision for the state and implicitly the race for her job. In her initial statement, she pointed out that some Republican legislators had been pushing for long prison sentences for abortion providers — attempts she pledged to veto — and in addition to appealing to the State Supreme Court, she signed an executive order insisting that state agencies refuse to work with officials aiming to prosecute abortions.

Whitmer’s future may also be tied to the success of a referendum that her allies are trying to get on the ballot. If the campaign to pass it succeeds in activating Whitmer-friendly voters to show up, it will codify abortion rights in the state constitution. Whitmer won’t know who she is facing until August, as the race to challenge her has devolved into chaos: Five Republican candidates, including top contenders, were disqualified for having forged signatures on their candidacy petitions this spring. Soon thereafter, Ryan Kelley, a real-estate broker running for the job, was arrested by the FBI for his role in the January 6 Capitol attack. Rather than celebrate the GOP field’s implosion, however, Dingell started warning her colleagues behind the scenes that the arrest might only empower the previously unknown Kelley in the eyes of primary voters. She was right: Less than three weeks later, he is arguably a front-runner in the race to face Whitmer. And Kelley, who calls abortion “murder,” pledged after the decision to “remove this scourge of abortion” from the state entirely.

The 3 Most Important Races in the Post-Roe Midterms