Until late June, the midterm election process was chugging along predictably, with voters expected to lean Republican in the course-corrective way voters do between presidential voting cycles. Pundits were forecasting a red wave in federal legislative races to blunt any momentum President Joe Biden, a Democrat elected in 2020, was enjoying.
But then came the U.S. Supreme Court’s seismic ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson case that criminalized abortion in many states and turned the entire election cycle on its head.
“Before Dobbs, you’d have to say this was a classic bad year for the incumbent party in power,” said Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy. “It was going to be a bad year nationally for Democrats. When it’s a bad year nationally for Democrats, it’s a bad year for North Carolina Democrats. Now things clearly are closer since Dobbs … Hope springs eternal for the Democrats in North Carolina, especially in the US Senate race.”
McCorkle and two other Duke faculty members spoke to reporters Tuesday morning at a press briefing at Duke University. All three scholars discussed the significant role the Dobbs ruling has had in motivating Democratic voters and putting Republicans on the defensive.
“That [abortion] decision … throws things up in the air,” said Kerry Haynie, a professor of political science. “We don’t yet know what will happen. I suspect it will be an advantage for Democratic candidates in this state and across the country. I suspect there are some Republican women and independent women who otherwise would be attracted to Republican candidates who may shift and vote for Democratic candidates.”
The abortion ruling’s impact on young women in particular is worth following closely, Haynie added.
“Young women may feel threatened by this recent decision. We may see an uptick in turnout among young voters,” he said. “We know historically young folks are not likely to turn out in elections in general, and especially in midterms. But this case may be a motivating factor for young folks, and especially young women.”
Asher Hildebrand, a professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy, said the high court ruling energized national Democrats who had been struggling to grab momentum.
“The election was shaping up to be a referendum on an unpopular president – an historically unpopular president,” Hildebrand said. “Democrats in Congress, despite some early victories, had their agenda largely stymied by internal divisions, as well as by unified Republican [opposition] in Congress. Inflation or price politics and other economic concerns dominated in voters’ minds. And on top of that you had the less pronounced but still very real structural advantage created by gerrymandering created by Republicans. … Since then, the defining issue has been abortion and the reaction to the Dobbs decision in many voters’ minds.”
The three scholars discussed several other political issues as well. Here are excerpts:
“We see, around the country, a surge in voter registration among female voters, among females under 25. That’s been a little less pronounced in North Carolina.
In North Carolina, (abortion) is indirectly on the ballot. If the Republicans win a supermajority, it very much will be one of the first things they do. But not all voters are making that connection.”
Pope “Mac” McCorkle
“It looks like Democrats are way more excited about Cheri Beasley than Republicans are about Congressman [Ted] Budd. Congressman Budd seemed to want to follow that Richard Burr/Thom Tillis ‘I’m just a generic R, vote for me.’ But now you’ll notice he’s coming out with ads saying ‘I’m a gun store owner.’ You’ll say ‘whoa, that’s a little out there for North Carolina.’”
“I think the Budd people are a little bit in crisis in trying to figure out what their message is. Is he a generic R or is he a Trump Republican?”
“Politics may not be local this time around, and it may work to the benefit of Democrats. I wouldn’t run against my opponent if I was a Democrat. I’d run against the Republicans. If I was running as a Democrat in this state, at any level, I’d make it about national issues.”
“Historically, that’s a population that has not turned out for the midterm elections at the rate of other groups. This election could be different. I think there are some efforts to mobilize local Latino populations in the state.”
“It remains to be seen what the ground game is, and that’s the biggest issue. Who’s out there trying to motivate these Latino populations to vote. They’ve historically been aligned with the Democratic party; there’s been some weakening of that alignment, but [they] still tend to be a Democratic-leaning constituency. But they have to be asked to vote, and Democrats have fallen down on that.”
Pope “Mac” McCorkle
The Hispanic voter pool, it’s now around 4%. It was around 3%. It’s still small – 4% – but in these close elections that we’re talking about, they could be absolutely crucial. It’s still clear that the minority vote in North Carolina is mainly Black-led, but boy, the Hispanic vote is important, and that’s a problem for Democrats. Are they taking that vote for granted?”
“We still don’t yet know all that may be revealed in these hearings. We are expecting the committee to have additional hearings between now and the midterms. There may be revelations there that may shake some Republican support if Republicans are seen as tied to the Trump administration.”
Kerry Haynie is a professor of political science, professor of African & African American studies, and dean of the Social Sciences. Haynie researches race and ethnic politics, women of color in politics, state and Southern politics and comparative urban politics.
Asher Hildebrand is an associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Hildebrand served for nearly 15 years in congressional offices and on political campaigns. He was formerly chief of staff to U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C.
Pope “Mac” McCorkle
Mac McCorkle is a professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. McCorkle was an issues consultant to political candidates, state governments and others for more than 25 years.