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Supporters react as preliminary results come in for Michigan Proposal 3 on Election Day on Nov. 8, in Detroit. Abortion rights supporters won in the four states where access was on the ballot Tuesday, as voters enshrined it into the state constitution in battleground Michigan as well as blue California and Vermont and dealt a defeat to an anti-abortion measure in deep-red Kentucky.Ryan Sun/The Associated Press

In previous elections, Stephanie Clayton didn’t talk much about abortion. A Democrat representing a suburban swing district in the Kansas state legislature, she was more used to stumping on education and taxes.

But this time, she led her campaign with a pro-choice message after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year and Kansans subsequently voted in the summer against removing state constitutional protections for the procedure.

Ms. Clayton cruised to re-election last week, in a vote that also saw the usually solid-red state back a Democratic governor for a second term.

“A pro-choice platform was very important in my race. I won in a landslide even though my district was heavily targeted by the right,” said Ms. Clayton, who took nearly two-thirds of the popular vote. “A lot of moderate Republican voters don’t want to deal with this far-right drama.”

Across the country, a solid majority of midterm voters supported abortion access. In all five states with ballot measures this month, voters opted to either preserve the right to choose or struck down attempts to roll it back. Even in places without referendums on the issue, political organizers, analysts and pollsters credited it with boosting Democratic candidates, helping President Joe Biden’s party to a far better showing than pre-election prognostications had predicted.

Patrick Murray, director of the polling institute at Monmouth University in New Jersey, said abortion rights combined with fears for democracy’s future to motivate Democratic voters who might not otherwise have felt inspired to cast a ballot.

“It’s folks who sit back and say ‘I don’t see anything getting better, why should I vote?’ This gave them a reason to get out to the polls,” he said.

Democrats retain control of U.S. Senate, allowing Biden to push ahead with agenda

Nowhere was the pro-choice victory more apparent than in Michigan. Not only did voters pass Proposal 3 – which adds reproductive rights to the state constitution – but they also handed the Democrats every statewide elected office and majorities in both legislative houses for the first time in 40 years.

Incumbent Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer ran ads that highlighted Republican rival Tudor Dixon’s support for a total abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. Ms. Whitmer also made economic arguments for choice, pledging to lure workers and business investment away from Ohio and Indiana, bordering red states that have enacted bans. Ms. Dixon, by contrast, played down the issue.

It was a role reversal for the two parties. Previously, Republicans were much more likely to raise abortion on the campaign trail, calculating that anti-abortion voters were more driven by the issue than pro-choice ones. Once the Supreme Court decision made losing this right suddenly real, it shot to the top of voters’ concerns, said Edward Sarpolus, a Michigan-based pollster. “This is the first time that people were confronted with this directly,” he said.

A push by Michigan Catholic leaders to mobilize churchgoers in a bid to defeat Proposal 3 may also have inadvertently helped Ms. Whitmer, said Mr. Sarpolus, of the firm Target Insyght: Democrats have an edge among Catholic voters in the state, who see the party as more compatible with their views on social justice, he said. And many Michigan Catholics, while against abortion on a personal level, still believe in allowing people to make the choice for themselves.

California and Vermont also passed abortion protections by referendum handily. In Kentucky and Montana, meanwhile, voters rejected efforts to restrict abortion. The pro-choice side also won an earlier ballot measure in Kansas in August.

Paul Mitchell, vice-president of Political Data, Inc., a California-based consultancy, said abortion was key for Democrats in pushing up turnout in the state, given the lack of a competitive governor’s race. It polled as the top issue for Democratic voters and independents who voted Democrat, he said, and also gave Democratic candidates an opening to talk about something they had majority support on, even as Republicans tried to highlight inflation and crime.

“We know in politics, it’s not just about having the right answers, it’s about having the issues people are talking about be your issues,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Even in crucial swing states without abortion on the ballot, Democrats did well by pushing the issue. In Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, Democrat Josh Shapiro handily dispatched Republican Doug Mastriano, who has said women who get abortions should be charged criminally. In the state’s senatorial contest, Democratic contender John Fetterman hammered his Republican rival, Mehmet Oz, for saying “local political leaders” should be involved in abortion decisions.

Both Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Fetterman took larger shares of the vote in Pennsylvania than Mr. Biden did when he carried the state two years ago.

Jim Wertz, chair of the Democratic Party in Erie County, said that, despite Republican efforts to play up inflation, campaigners more often heard concerns about abortion and democracy. He said his county also saw a spike in young voters registering.

“I didn’t see a lot of apathy at all. At the doors, when we were talking to voters, people were like ‘yes I’m voting’ right away,” he said.

In Georgia, where Democrats are hoping to hold onto a senate seat in a runoff election next month, abortion was one of the issues that motivated Gail Bean to get involved. Earlier this year, the state banned the procedure after six weeks.

A 29-year-old movie and television actress campaigning for Senator Raphael Warnock, Ms. Bean herself had an abortion when she was 17.

“I was grateful to have that option. If that happened under today’s laws and I had to keep the child, I would not have been able to make a better life,” she said. “It would have created intergenerational trauma for the child, born into a life of poverty.”