It’s Suddenly Dawning On Republicans That They Have A Major Abortion Problem

The Ohio election was a proxy battle for abortion. TPM Illustration/Getty Images
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Republicans are reeling this week, days after Ohio voters handily defeated a ballot initiative widely understood to be a proxy fight for a coming proposal to enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution. 

Voters batted down the measure, which would have made it much more difficult for the abortion proposal to pass in November, by a 14 percentage point margin.

Ohio is just the latest red state to vote for abortion protections or against restrictions post-Dobbs, joining the ranks of Kentucky, Kansas and Montana. 

Some Republicans are conjuring up strawmen to blame, such as being outspent by the “vote no” side — despite being well-bankrolled themselves, including by Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein — and having insufficient time to campaign — despite the fact that state Republicans scheduled the election. 

But others are finally reckoning with the string of electoral defeats, which has manifested both in explicitly related ballot initiatives and in more tangential elections, like the victory of now-Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz this April. 

“Republicans spent half a century working to overturn Roe, yet they weren’t prepared for the democratic policy debate when that finally happened in Dobbs last year,” wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board in a piece called “Ohio Is Another GOP Abortion Warning.” 

“Now they’re seeing abortion regimes as loose as Roe, or potentially looser, imposed by voters even in conservative states,” it continued. “This political liability will persist until the GOP finds an abortion message that most voters can accept.”

Part of the right’s bewilderment stems from the reality that abortion was such an electoral carrot for the party for so long. Then-candidate Donald Trump made it a huge part of his presidential appeal: Vote for me, and I’ll stack the Supreme Court with justices who’ll overturn Roe. 

While Roe was the law of the land, national-level Republican lawmakers could go to the floor and rail against abortion, even introduce various restrictions, signaling their allyship with the Christian Right while safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t have to deal with any political fallout. 

And while state Republicans often had much more leeway in passing restrictions — and rendered some swaths of the country abortion deserts long before Dobbs — those measures, often putting up fairly soporific barriers like requiring multiple patient visits and that providers have hospital admitting privileges, didn’t unleash the energy of a full-scale overturn of Roe. 

To make things worse for Republicans, it’s been over a year since Dobbs was handed down, and the anger of those opposing the ruling has not abated. 

A CNN poll released earlier this week found that 64 percent of U.S. adults say they disapprove of the ruling, with half of those strongly disapproving it — near identical numbers to the poll CNN conducted immediately after the decision in 2022. The number of Americans who say they’d only vote for a candidate who shares their view on abortion has gone up slightly, from 26 percent to 29 percent, and 84 percent say they’re likely to pay attention to a candidate’s abortion views when deciding how to vote. Those who don’t see abortion as a major issue — a scant 16 percent — comprise “a record low in CNN polling dating back to 1996.”

All of that seems to be coming home to roost for the party that worked for Roe’s demise for decades. 

“The Ohio result tonight, coming on the heels of the shellacking in Michigan and the unexpected loss in Kentucky, needs to be a five-alarm fire for the pro-life movement,” tweeted Patrick Brown, a conservative scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, on Tuesday. 

“There shouldn’t be any sugarcoating over what happened last night. It was a major setback in what became a very public fight between pro-choice and pro-life groups,” Bill Stepien, former Trump campaign manager, said on Fox News Wednesday. “This happened in Ohio, which is not a pink state anymore. This is a state that is red.”

He fretted that the anti-abortion movement would “be breathing life into a pretty unenthusiastic campaign,” referring to polling reflecting fairly low levels of Democratic enthusiasm for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. 

“Since Dobbs, voters haven’t approved abortion restrictions in ANY STATE,” right-wing pundit Ann Coulter lamented on Wednesday. “They’ve rejected abortion restrictions in Kentucky, Montana, Michigan, Kansas, Vermont and California … and now, Ohio.”

Scott Morefield, a reporter for the right-wing outlet Townhall, added in response: “Instead of focusing on mid and late term abortions that most Americans agree should be restricted, ‘pro-life’ has overplayed their hand and made the issue an albatross around the GOP’s neck. Bad, bad politics that will cost us on a lot of other issues as we continue to lose.”

The albatross will continue to hang. 

Efforts are already underway in key 2024 states including Arizona and Florida to put abortion rights initiatives on the ballot next cycle. 

Progressive group Indivisible sent out a memo to donors Wednesday, capitalizing on the Ohio result to push the next effort in Arizona. 

“In 2024, national Democratic donors and stakeholders should look to Arizona as the next state with a serious, layered return on investment for putting abortion on the ballot,” it said.

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