By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -When Michele and Matthew Nielsen voted in the U.S. midterm elections in Georgia, concerns about the economy did not dictate their choices. They wanted to protect abortion rights and stop candidates beholden to Republican former president Donald Trump.
“If someone wants me to vote Republican, that's fine, but they should probably not mention abortion and they should probably not mention Trump," Matthew Nielsen, 33, said outside a polling place in Alpharetta, Georgia.
The couple had supported a mix of Democrats and Republicans in the past. This time they voted for U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat.
They voiced concerns shared by millions of other voters who supported Democratic candidates in surprising numbers, denying Republicans the so-called “red wave” election they had been expecting.
By Wednesday, any wave had flattened out into a ripple.
Republicans remained on track to seize control of the U.S. House of Representatives – as had long been predicted – but by narrower margins than had been forecast. Which party would control the Senate was unclear and may not be decided until a runoff next month in Georgia.
Republicans were confident that Democratic President Joe Biden's unpopularity and Americans' angst over rising food and gas prices would help them take the majority from Democrats in both houses.
Exit polling and interviews with analysts and voters showed that while inflation was a leading driver for voters, the issue of protecting abortion rights was nearly as paramount.
That surprised Democratic Party strategists and pollsters, who had expected inflation would trump everything, including concerns about the loss of abortion rights. They had urged the party to spend more time focusing on inflation.
Even White House officials worried in the last days of the campaign that they had spent too much time talking about abortion and too little about high prices.
This was reinforced by national opinion polling, which appeared to show voters much more concerned about inflation.
Voters also told Reuters they were concerned about the Republican Party’s persistent embrace of Trump, who has signaled he could launch another presidential bid next week.
According to exit polls by Edison Research, 58% of voters held an unfavorable view of Trump, compared to 39% who viewed him favorably.
ABORTION ON THE BALLOT
When the Supreme Court stripped away longstanding U.S. constitutional abortion rights in June, it galvanized the Democratic base, resulted in a flood of new voter registrations and steered some independents toward Democratic candidates.
“Midterms are usually determined by which party is angrier, which is why the president’s party normally loses,” said Jared Leopold, who has worked in Democratic politics at both the Senate and gubernatorial levels. “But the abortion issue scrambled that dynamic.”
Independent voters, who historically move away from the party in power in midterm elections, instead voted with Democrats over Republicans by a 49-47% margin, according to Edison's exit polls. The shift was driven by women who identified as independents.
Overall, 31% of voters said inflation was their top concern and 27% said abortion was the biggest issue. Crime and immigration were each cited by just one in 10 voters.
But among women, who made up a slight majority of voters this year, abortion edged out inflation as the top issue by 5 percentage points.
Overall, women broke for Democrats 53% to 45% - a smaller spread than the 15-point advantage Biden had over Trump among women in the 2020 presidential contest. But Democrats' strength with women may have at least helped the party stem its losses.
The Democratic data firm TargetSmart tracked new voter registrations after the Supreme Court decision on abortion. Women outpaced men in terms of new registrations in all but four states, said Tom Bonier, the firm's chief executive.
The issue resonated also at the state level. Michigan voters approved a ballot issue that gave abortion state constitutional protection and re-elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had vowed to “fight like hell” to protect abortion rights.
Heather Miller, a 52-year-old teacher in Detroit, cast her ballot just before the polls closed on Tuesday with the main intention of voting for the ballot measure. “That’s why I showed up,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that got passed.”
Voters in Kentucky as well rejected a ballot issue that would have removed abortion rights from the state constitution.
Some voters crossed partisan lines to support abortion rights. Sydney Wright, an 18-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Reno, said she counts herself as a conservative but voted Democratic because of abortion.
“I would rather focus on social issues this election,” she said.
Wright added she was repelled by Trump because of his abortion stance and contentious demeanor. She said she hoped Republicans would not nominate him for president in 2024.
THE TRUMP FACTOR
Like Wright, Nyasha Riley, 37, a registered Republican in Phoenix, voted for Democrats because of abortion rights and Trump. His endorsement of the top Republican candidates in Arizona was a turn-off.
She feels that Republicans have become too extreme. “That was a motivating factor for me,” Riley said.
A senior Republican official in Pennsylvania said Democrat John Fetterman's Senate victory over Republican Mehmet Oz will lead to a reckoning among the state's Republicans.
"One thing we learned is that a Trump-backed candidate makes it more difficult to win a swing state like Pennsylvania. This state is legitimately tired of Trump at the moment," he said.
Jonah Talbatt, a retired 65-year old drug and alcohol specialist from Monroe County in Pennsylvania who has voted Republican in the past, said he has grown more active in local and state politics to battle the growing number of Republicans who support Trump's false claims that the 2020 election.
That was a more important issue to him than the economy, he said.
“I just can't get past the denialism of what's happening," Talbatt said, "and I fear for what that means for our country.”
(Writing by James Oliphant; Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Michigan, Nathan Layne in Georgia, Ned Parker in Nevada, Tim Reid in Arizona, Jarrett Renshaw in Pennsylvania, and Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)