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Demonstrators protest during a rally for reproductive freedom and voting rights on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Oct. 3.JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Max Rogowski pays little attention to politics. When he’s not working his engineering job in the auto industry or going to the movies, the 26-year-old describes himself as a homebody who doesn’t feel affected by most civic issues. He didn’t vote in the last election.

So he was surprised when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Roe v. Wade this year, ending a half-century of federal protection for abortion. “I didn’t even really know there was potential for that to get overturned. I always thought it was set in stone,” he said on the porch of his home in Novi, a northeast suburb of Detroit.

The move has galvanized Mr. Rogowski to cast a ballot in the Nov. 8 midterm elections. He’ll be supporting Proposal 3, which would add abortion rights to Michigan’s state constitution.

“I’m just for the freedom of everyone. Everyone has the right to choose what they do with their life,” he said. “With an issue like this, I’ll definitely go and vote.”

Abortion rights campaigners are counting on people such as Mr. Rogowski as they fight a state-by-state battle this autumn to preserve abortion access: voters who might otherwise be politically disengaged, suddenly jolted into action. At least five states will consider referendum measures meant to either preserve or ban the procedure.

The Democratic Party is also banking on a groundswell to rescue them from defeat in an otherwise difficult election year. For months, the Republicans looked set to take control of Congress on the back of high inflation and low approval ratings for President Joe Biden. But since the Supreme Court decision, the parties have been roughly even in most polling.

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Laurie Pohutsky, a Democratic state legislator canvassing Mr. Rogowski’s neighbourhood one recent afternoon, said defending reproductive rights has always been a winning issue for her. During her first election in 2018, the state party wasn’t happy when she touted her endorsement from Planned Parenthood on her brochures, she said, for fear of driving away swing voters. The reaction, however, was overwhelmingly positive.

“It was something the majority of voters were on my side with and, frankly, they appreciated the transparency,” Ms. Pohutsky, 34, said. “It made people comfortable to start a conversation.”

Last year, she sponsored legislation repealing a 1931 Michigan law that banned abortion, in anticipation it would go back into effect if the Supreme Court overturned Roe. A Republican majority in the state legislature ensured her bill went nowhere. The workaround was gathering enough signatures to put abortion directly on the ballot. For now, a state court has blocked the 1931 law. Advocates fear that a future judicial decision could revive it absent Proposal 3.

Ms. Pohutsky’s experience cuts against conventional wisdom. Even as pro-choice Americans have been a majority in the U.S. for decades, the issue has traditionally been seen as far more important to social conservative voters than to liberals. Republicans have consequently been more likely to campaign on it.

This year, the tactics have reversed. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic Governor, is ahead in the polls with a campaign that highlights her pro-choice politics. Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, meanwhile, is playing down the issue. Ms. Dixon has previously said she supports a full ban on abortion, but at a campaign rally last weekend, she insisted she would not have any power to make such a move as governor.

“Gretchen is out there saying that I’m going to be able to do something about that issue in this state. You all know, it’s on the ballot, it’s been decided by a judge, don’t let her bright shiny thing distract,” Ms. Dixon said.

Instead, she pivoted to other culture war issues, vowing to ban transwomen from competing in women’s sports and to stop teachers from discussing gender identity with students.

Republican voters around the Detroit area made clear the reason for Ms. Dixon’s caution on abortion, evincing a sharp divide on what has traditionally been one of their party’s signature policies.

“There are a lot of instances where you really need to have an abortion, and a woman should have her own choice,” said Hilda Ansara, 69, as she stood with her friend Angela Bahu, 48, in the Twelve Oaks shopping centre in Novi. Added Ms. Bahu: “The legislature has no place in our personal business.”

Both said they were voting for Proposal 3. They are still backing Republican candidates elsewhere on the ballot, suggesting that support for abortion may not automatically translate into a Democratic boon.

Steve Burt, for his part, articulated the orthodox conservative line. “I feel for the girl if she gets pregnant, but there’s a life inside of her,” the 54-year-old said outside his house in Roseville, a working-class community north of the city.

A dozen or so Republican activists who gathered to wave election signs on a nearby street corner one recent evening said they opposed Proposal 3. Some contended that Ms. Dixon had been too reticent on the issue. “Speak your mind, girl!” Marge Stadwick, 60, exhorted her.

Back on Ms. Pohutsky’s canvassing route, voter Maria Rimoldi said she, her husband and son were all motivated to vote in the midterms to pass abortion protections. Having grown up in Argentina, where the procedure was illegal until 2020, she said she was well familiar with the consequences of pushing it into the shadows.

“So many women die every year,” said Ms. Rimoldi, a 61-year-old retired teacher. “Your body is your body. God is God. Don’t mix them.”

It remains to be seen if there are more Ms. Rimoldis than Mr. Burts. Either way, Ms. Pohutsky said, this was what would define the election.

“Abortion is the animating issue,” she said. “Regardless of party.”

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