Published On: Wed, Nov 8th, 2023

Election results point to major GOP liability on abortion heading into 2024

Election results point to major GOP liability on abortion heading into 2024
Election results point to major GOP liability on abortion heading into 2024

Abortion rights keep winning and winning at the ballot box — and on Tuesday, winning some more.

Nearly 17 months after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the hot streak enjoyed by candidates and ballot measures backing abortion rights continued in a collection of states in very different places across the political spectrum.

In Ohio, the state constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion rights won by double digits, a year after Republicans swept the statewide offices that were up in the midterm elections. In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won re-election after having made support of abortion rights a key message of his campaign in the deep red state. And in Virginia, Democrats kept their majority in the state Senate and flipped the state House — a substantive rebuke of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who’d put a 15-week abortion ban at the center of his campaign to help the GOP win full control of government in what has become a blue-leaning state over the last decade.

The results are yet more evidence that heading into 2024, abortion rights remain a major political force for Democrats and a vulnerability for Republicans across the country, political strategists from both major parties said. 

“Democrats have a message on abortion that’s more salient than Republicans’,” Republican strategist Alex Conant said. “And Republicans need to figure out a way to talk about abortion that can win independent voters in the center.”

Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said it’s not “a question of Republicans retooling their message or finding a new slogan or trying to sell people on something that people don’t want.”

“We now have the 2022 midterms, the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, the other ballot measures, Kansas and tonight’s results,” Ferguson continued, rattling off the list of victories by abortion-rights supporters since Roe was overturned. “This is not some referendum on the status quo. This is people showing they’re worried about the consequences that come from extremism … in red states like Kentucky, purple states in Virginia and everything in between.”

It didn’t matter Tuesday whether abortion rights were explicitly on the ballot in a red-leaning state (Ohio), a feature of the Democratic candidate’s campaign in a ruby-red state (Kentucky) or the key issue of races in a blue-leaning one (Virginia). Whatever the level of prominence in the campaign, abortion rights won — and with broad support across various demographics.

In Ohio, for example, Issue 1 was supported by majorities of men, women, white voters, Black voters and Hispanic voters and across voters ages 18 to 64, according to NBC News exit polling.

Reproductive rights advocates noted that the issue helped propel candidates in other statewide races Tuesday, like a state Supreme Court race in Pennsylvania, where abortion rights was a central theme. A Democratic candidate won Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, Youngkin persuaded a broad slate of Republican candidates in the legislative races to coalesce behind his proposal for a ban on abortion after 15 weeks as part of his effort to gain Republican control of both chambers of the Legislature. Strategists and politics watchers, keenly aware of GOP struggles on abortion, saw the proposal — which included exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the woman — as a test message for Republicans looking for a more nuanced reproductive rights policy and message to run on in the post-Roe v. Wade era.

That didn’t work, either.

As a result, heading into 2024, Republicans still lack an effective way to counter messaging from Democrats who have bludgeoned them over their support of more restrictive abortion laws.

“Republicans have got to find the right place among voters. But they may not,” said Brandon Scholz, a GOP strategist in Wisconsin — where liberals won the majority on the state Supreme Court this year after their candidate made abortion rights a central pillar of her campaign.

“The Republican Party is just pretty well split on this issue,” Scholz said.

Nevertheless, some Republicans suggested there was one magic tool the GOP could use to work through its bind: Donald Trump.

Trump, of course, appointed the Supreme Court justices who tipped the court toward overturning Roe. But he has also proved harder to pin on abortion rights than many other Republicans, at times to his detriment among conservatives.

For example, Trump has criticized six-week state abortion bans as being “too harsh,” and he skipped a prominent conservative summit in Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds signed such a ban alongside a half-dozen other Republican presidential candidates. He hasn’t articulated a specific position on abortion policy, though he has suggested at times that the issue be left to the states and has blamed GOP candidates’ hard-line positions for the party’s underperformance in the 2022 midterms.

Nevertheless, Trump remains far ahead in national polls of the GOP primary campaign and in the key early-voting state of Iowa — where conservative evangelical Christians are a key voting bloc — even though several candidates, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are running to his right on abortion.

The mounting losses on abortion rights could help advance an argument that Trump is uniquely positioned among Republicans in the presidential race to counter the narrative that the issue is a big loser for the party.

“I think this is likely why Trump has really hedged on talking much about abortion during his primary campaign,” Conant said. “It’s the one issue that he’s comfortable letting his opponents get to the right of him on.”

Democrats have made little secret that they plan to pin the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling on Trump in 2024 if he is the nominee.

“Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is responsible for ending Roe v. Wade. And if you vote for him, he’ll go even further,” President Joe Biden tweeted in September.

Reproductive rights advocates also noted the efforts underway to place ballot measures similar to the Ohio amendment in states like Arizona and Florida next year — which, they say, could help boost the fortunes of Democratic candidates running alongside the ballot measures.

Many vowed to continue to make Republicans pay for continuing to push for restrictions on abortion access.

“Even in states that are considered red, this is a winnable issue, across religious identities, political identities, because it impacts everybody’s lives in very fundamental ways, and we are going to continue to see this play out in elections to come — until we have access restored,” said Tamarra Wieder, the Kentucky state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, one of the political arms of the national reproductive rights group, before she delivered a warning directly to Republicans.

“You’ve lost on this issue,” she said. “And you better be prepared to continue to lose.”

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