By Grace Panetta and Mel Leonor Barclay / The 19th
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tuesday’s elections confirmed that voters remain concerned about threats to reproductive rights 16 months after the end of Roe v. Wade and the issue is a potent one for Democrats at the ballot box.
The 12-point margin of victory of the Ohio ballot measure guaranteeing a right to abortion and other reproductive health care is energizing supporters of similar state referendums planned in 2024. Plus, Democrats’ new legislative majority in Virginia suggests voters are motivated by the issue even when it’s not directly on the ballot, an important indicator ahead of congressional and state races next year.
In deep-red Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear’s successful reelection campaignagainst Attorney General Daniel Cameron gave a major boost to Democrats — Kentucky’s odd-year gubernatorial elections have accurately forecast the result of the presidential election for the past five cycles.
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“Abortion motivates voters, no matter how it appears on the ballot,” said Angela Vasquez-Giroux, who leads messaging and research at Reproductive Freedom for All, a prominent abortion rights group. “We had pretty powerful evidence last night that supporting abortion access, being vocal about it, being proud about it — that it aligns with the vast majority of American voters and that voters are eager to support people who support their values.”
Advocates in Ohio credited their victory to early investment and a broad, grassroots coalition of groups building on their existing infrastructure. In a campaign that brought tens of millions of dollars in outside spending to the state, the coalition supporting the measure, Issue 1, raised far more than its opponents and outspent them on the airwaves.
“This was a fight that we took very seriously,” Jordyn Close, deputy director of the Ohio Women’s Alliance, said at an election night event for Issue 1 supporters. “We outspent them, we out-strategized them and in the end, we ended up with a victory.”
Anti-abortion activists, she noted, had passed over two dozen abortion restrictions in Ohio over the past two decades, meaning pro-Issue 1 advocates were familiar with their opponents’ playbook. Still, Ohio Republicans in elected office mounted aggressive and costly efforts to thwart the amendment’s passage, making the battle in Ohio the most challenging yet for abortion rights supporters.
“It was not a straight line on this fight. Republicans threw up every roadblock they could along the way to get to last night’s outcome,” Liz Walters, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Wednesday morning. Walters pointed to the language state officials put on the ballot that used anti-abortion wording. “Ohio voters are smart. They understand what’s in front of them.”
Democrats and advocates involved in the effort said a disciplined message focused on shared values of personal freedom and liberty from government intrusion won the day while their opponents argued, unsuccessfully, that the amendment would allow unfettered abortions and infringe on parental rights.
To Democrats, the results in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia show that voters aren’t buying Republicans’ messaging on abortion, whether it be pitching voters on 15-week bans as a consensus plan, trying to make the debate about parents’ rights or tying abortion to gender-affirming health care.
Invigorated Ohio Democrats are looking ahead to 2024 and have their sights on reelecting Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in what will be a competitive and highly watched race. They’re already hammering the three Republicans vying for the GOP nomination over their opposition to Issue 1 and framing the race as critical to stopping a national abortion ban.
“It is going to be incredibly salient, and it’s going to be top of mind for voters,” Walters said.
The results in Ohio also show what a path to victory could look like for organizers in other purple and red-leaning states. Efforts are underway in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Nevada and South Dakota to get onto the ballot abortion rights constitutional amendments that could meaningfully expand abortion access in large swaths of the country. In some cases, organizers are already navigating similarly hostile political territory.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which played a key role in the pro-Issue 1 coalition in Ohio and in passing an abortion rights amendment in Michigan in 2022, said Tuesday night they plan to “use the full force” of their organization to help state-level advocates in “finding the best paths forward” to enshrining abortion access.
“I know that those states have very broad coalitions and groups who have been doing this work for many years — and to be able to bring them together in one successful campaign is a challenge,” Veronica Ingham, campaign manager for Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, said on a Wednesday morning call with reporters. “But it’s a wonderful opportunity and beautiful thing when it is executed.”
The success of Ohio’s measure follows a string of victories for abortion rights when the issue is directly on the ballot. Political observers were closely watching elections in Virginia and elsewhere for signs that voters are energized by candidates who are vocal about protecting abortion access.
Virginia Democrats decided early in the cycle to center abortion in their fight to take control of the state legislature. From the party’s first TV ad buy, Virginia Democrats made the case to voters that handing full control of the legislature to Republicans would quickly yield abortion restrictions, and that averting those was the most urgent issue in the election.
Democratic candidates up and down the ballot echoed that message and clinched victory in key races to take majority control of both chambers. The Democratic candidate won the most expensive matchup of the cycle, a Senate district anchored in Northern Virginia, by making abortion rights the centerpiece of her campaign. In another competitive Senate race near the state’s capital, the Democratic candidate took down an eight-year GOP incumbent who was campaigning for a 15-week abortion ban.
“Thank you for standing up for abortion rights here in Virginia, and across the South,” Sen.-elect Russet Perry, the Northern Virginia Democrat, told supporters Tuesday night. “I said … we’re going to draw the line at the [state] border and it’s going to be a line where we protect people, where people can come here, they can come get the health care they need, where doctors can stay, where their medical opinion matters.”
Democrats and abortion rights advocates say Virginia’s elections offer a road map, both for congressional races and for state legislative races, including the high-profile fight for the Arizona legislature.
“These results prove that Republicans are wrong on this issue, and that the governor’s desire to ban abortion in the state of Virginia is not only not popular, but also created a level of momentum and enthusiasm,” said Heather Williams, the acting president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “We know we have a winning strategy to deliver the types of wins we saw last night … in 2024.”
With Democrats in control of the legislature, abortion rights activists in Virginia are now looking ahead to the potential for a ballot measure to secure reproductive rights in the state. Virginia’s lengthy approvals process means such a measure would not appear on the ballot until 2026.
Abortion became a major issue in the Kentucky governor’s race despite the governor having little authority to change that policy in the state. Beshear’s campaign and outside groups hammered Cameron for his anti-abortion record and how, for most of his campaign, Cameron defended Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban, which has no exceptions for rape or incest.
Toward the end of the campaign, Cameron tried to soften his stance on exceptions, but he lost by nearly five points despite his efforts to tie Beshear to unpopular President Joe Biden. To abortion rights advocates, it further underscored the strength of the issue and the unpopularity of bans without exceptions. The Biden-Harris campaign said in a statement that voters on Tuesday supported their agenda and rebuked “dangerous MAGA extremism.”
Vasquez-Giroux said Tuesday’s victories for abortion rights suggests the issue has attracted a broad coalition of support. That includes Black and Latinx voters, she said, who helped drive wins in both Virginia and Ohio, and whom Biden will need to energize to win in 2024. “Exit polling last night in particular suggests that voters of color, Latino voters, Black voters are the base of support for abortion rights,” she said.
Vasquez-Giroux added the issue can also transcend party affiliation, as seen in Ohio and Kentucky.
“People’s values are not tied to a political party, especially on an issue like abortion and reproductive freedom,” she said. “If you fundamentally believe, as 1 in 10 Americans do, that you should be the person who makes decisions about your own body, you believe that whether you vote for Republicans or Democrats.”
Mel Leonor Barclay
Mel Leonor Barclay is a political reporter. She has a decade of experience covering government and elections, from tiny South Florida localities to Congress. Most recently, Mel was a Virginia politics reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and previously covered federal policy at POLITICO. Mel is an immigrant of the Dominican Republic and native Spanish speaker.