It’s abortion, stupid.
Across the country on Tuesday night, the fight to retain or regain reproductive rights remained the defining issue driving voters to the polls.
In deep red Ohio — a state with a Republican governor and legislature that Trump won twice — voters turned out in droves to enshrine the right to abortion in the state’s constitution. In Kentucky — Mitch McConnell’s home state, where Trump also comfortably won twice — voters delivered a second term to a Democratic governor who made his opposition to the state’s near-total ban on abortion a centerpiece of his campaign. In Virginia, Democrats took total control of the state legislature after Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin promised he’d use a GOP majority to pass an abortion ban. Even in a relatively obscure Supreme Court race in Pennsylvania, the pro-choice Democrat defeated an anti-abortion Republican in a race that centered on the two candidates’ abortion views.
It was a huge night for Democrats at a moment when the forecast for the party’s 2024 prospects — at least to retain the White House — could not be more dismal. A New York Times/Siena College poll released this weekend showed Donald Trump, the subject of four criminal indictments and two civil lawsuits, outpolling President Joe Biden in six critical swing states. Biden’s edge with younger voters, who preferred him by double digits in 2020, has virtually evaporated.
The encouraging news for Democrats is that, one year out from the election, a pro-choice message is a winning message, and it’s hard to imagine Republicans coalescing around a strategy that will appeal to the broader electorate. Cameron in Kentucky and Republicans in Virginia leaned heavily into culture war issues, but gained little traction, and the party’s frothing opposition to reproductive rights proved just as unpopular this year as it was last November.
Republicans in Ohio and Virginia tested out two very different tactics to realize their anti-abortion agenda in Tuesday’s elections — and both failed.
In Ohio, where Republicans had already passed a six-week ban on abortion, GOP officials went on offense, using every tool at their disposal to keep voters from protecting abortion rights. They tried to change the rules to amend the constitution, purged the voting rolls, re-wrote the ballot language, and used government resources to spread misinformation about the proposal.
“To their credit, extremist politicians in Ohio recognized pretty early this year that they were deeply out of sync with their electorate [on abortion],” says Kelly Hall of the Fairness Project, a group that works on ballot measures around the country. “And because they knew they were so deeply out of sync with their electorate, they tried to pull every procedural trick out of the book.”
In Virginia Republicans took a different tact: Instead of trying to force a deeply unpopular six-week ban down voters’ throats, they tried to convince voters that a 15-week ban is not a ban at all — rather a reasonable “limit,” a kinder, gentler consensus position everyone could get behind. But voters didn’t buy that either.
“We saw Republicans in Virginia try to navigate new language around their ban, try to soften their approach,” says Heather Williams, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to state legislatures. “It was ineffective, clearly, now that we know the results.”
The primary question after Tuesday’s rout is to what extent voters’ sustained fury at Republican attempts to strip them of their rights, reproductive and otherwise, can help Biden stave off defeat next November.
It’s a question Donald Trump has dwelled on in recent months, but it’s not clear he has a solution either. Even as the former president privately warns associates that the GOP is “getting killed on abortion,” he is running ads in Iowa touting his record as the “MOST pro-life president in history” — a tacit admission that he cannot win the primary or general election without the support of anti-abortion voters.
It certainly helps Democrats that abortion referendums like the one that passed in Ohio will appear on the ballot in at least two critical swing states: Arizona and Nevada. Similar efforts are also underway in Nebraska, Colorado, and Florida.
Hall, of the Fairness Project, is already looking ahead to those fights — and she likes what she sees.
“The really stunning, compelling, profound thing about Ohio is that this is the first proactive, citizen-initiated protective of affirmative abortion rights efforts to go forward in a historically red state, a state that voted for Trump, a state that has Republican trifecta,” she says. “This is really breaking new ground. And it is not only fantastic for Ohio, but it is fantastic for the light that this shines on the path for other red states with deep restrictions on abortion rights. Because if this is possible in Ohio, it is possible in so many places, and that’s what’s so gratifying and exciting about tonight’s resounding win.”