fb-pixel Skip to main content

Democrats in Michigan hope to capitalize on swell of support for abortion rights

Hillary Scholten, a Democrat running for Congress, spoke with Maria D’Angelo on her porch as Scholten went door knocking in the Heritage Hill neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Mich., earlier this month.Daytona Niles for The Boston Globe

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Hillary Scholten, a 40-year-old Democratic congressional hopeful, only had to knock on a handful of doors last Saturday in a residential neighborhood here before she encountered Maria D’Angelo, who was sitting on her front porch, about to have coffee with her neighbor, Sara VanderArk.

Both women in the historically conservative but now Democratic-leaning district are overwhelmingly focused on a single issue this November: women’s rights.

“I’ve had to voice publicly and to family members that I never intended to tell that I’ve had abortions,” D’Angelo, a Democrat, told the Globe about the fallout from the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. VanderArk, who identifies as an independent, said she was inspired by the court ruling to join abortion rights protests and that her vote would largely hinge on the issue in the fall.


They are exactly the type of galvanized voters that Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in Michigan and across the country are hoping will give them a boost in the November midterm elections. Midterm years are historically bad news for the president’s party even without high inflation and sagging presidential approval ratings, but Democrats now are nursing a sliver of hope: They’re narrowing the enthusiasm gap — the motivation level of voters — and popular opinion on the issue of abortion is on their side.

That’s especially true in Michigan, a battleground state where, like Kansas before it, there has been a surge in the number of women who’ve registered to vote since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June after almost 50 years as settled precedent, according to an analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. A recent poll commissioned by AARP, the interest group for older Americans, showed the issue was among voters’ top concerns. And Michigan’s new third congressional district, where Scholten is running, is a rare congressional race where Democrats aren’t just having to focus on defending their turf, they feel bullish about their odds of flipping the seat.


“The level of engagement on this issue is just so high,” Scholten told the Globe in an interview at her campaign office last weekend. “It’s the only thing I hear about. Women stop me in the grocery store and grab my arms and are like, please do something about this.”

Scholten, an attorney and former Department of Justice official, said she saw a surge of volunteers, fund-raising, and willingness of voters to answer doors and talk to her after the Dobbs decision.

This may sound strange in a district that has historically voted Republican. Its congressman is Republican Peter Meijer, a scion of a Midwest grocery store dynasty, and its voters have backed Republicans in the last three presidential elections. But the district’s newly drawn boundaries that are in place for the first time this election cycle make it significantly friendlier to Democrats. Since Meijer, who was one of just 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach former President Trump, lost his primary to his more right-wing and anti-abortion opponent John Gibbs, Democrats hope to motivate the more Democratic-leaning voters in Grand Rapids and its suburbs who are now part of the district and are mad as hell about the abortion rights repeal.

“Everywhere around the state, when we knock on doors, people bring up abortion — it’s not a negative anywhere,” said Michigan state Senator Winnie Brinks. “People used to be pro-choice, but they were quiet about it. Now they’re not quiet about it. They’re like, ‘Nope, this is on the line, we’re gonna talk about it.’”


That was clear in interviews with voters in downtown Grand Rapids for the city’s “3rd Thursdays,” where residents congregate for live music and can go into the city’s art museum for free courtesy of the Meijer Foundation. It was clear in interviews on the other end of the district on the shore of Lake Michigan, where voters strolled watching the sun set over the lake on a Friday night. And it was clear in the views expressed by voters Scholten met knocking on doors.

“I will for sure be there to vote,” said Erica Kochaney, a Democrat and Grand Rapids resident who was at Grand Haven State Park on Friday evening. Reproductive freedom “is my number one reason for getting out there for sure.”

On the Scholten-Gibbs race and the issue of abortion, she added, “I know where she stands on it, and I’m fine, and I feel like I know where he stands on it, and I’m not fine with it.”

Gibbs’s website states he sees protecting “the lives of unborn human beings as a top priority.” The Detroit News reported he is against making exceptions for abortion in cases of rape and incest. Gibbs’s spokesperson AnneMarie Schieber described his views as “common sense” but did not specify what, if any, exceptions he would support.


Still, Democrats can’t take anything in the race for granted, as polling shows voters are pessimistic about the economy and Republicans are still favored by most analysts to take back the House.

“I think it’s a marginally Democratic district that a Republican candidate can win in a strong Republican year,” said Justin Amash, a Republican-turned-independent who represented the district before Meijer, and who retired after casting the lone non-Democratic vote for Trump’s first impeachment. He added that extremism in either direction does not play well with the voters there. “This is an area that has been traditionally fairly pro-life, so it will be interesting to see what happens now, when I think Democrats probably have more of the energy on that issue.”

The congressional race isn’t the only competitive election in this state in which abortion is set to play an outsize role. Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer is running for reelection against Tudor Dixon, who is anti-abortion and recently said that teenage rape victims could find “healing” in having the child rather than seeking an abortion. The incumbent Democratic attorney general, an adamant defender of women’s rights who has in the past campaigned on the fact that she “doesn’t have a penis,” has promised not to enforce a ban on providing abortions that’s been on the books since 1931; she is running against a Republican man who has said he would. Down ballot, candidates like Brinks are hoping that the state Legislature, currently controlled by Republicans, could be in reach. Democrats would need to flip just a handful of seats to take power in both chambers.


A constitutional amendment question that would guarantee the right to an abortion in the state is likely to end up on the ballot, which would make the midterms even more about abortion. And voters in this district have a particularly immediate threat to abortion access: Many of the district’s voters live in Kent County, where the county prosecutor wants to enforce the state’s 1931 abortion ban. On Aug. 19 a judge put a preliminary injunction on the law, blocking county prosecutors from being able to enforce it.

The crackling political atmosphere has motivated some voters who had previously sat out midterm elections. Maria Tarrh, a resident of the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming, told Brinks and state House candidate John Fitzgerald that abortion was her top issue in this election when they stopped by her house to ask for her support last weekend. She put out yard signs for several Democratic candidates after they left and said she was not missing Election Day this November.

“I’ve been lazy,” she said. “But not anymore.”

Lissandra Villa Huerta can be reached at lissandra.villa@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @LissandraVilla.