Abortion Rights Advocates Win Major Victories in Ohio, Kentucky

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Issue 1 supporters cheer as they watch election results come in, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Columbus Ohio.

Abortion rights advocates won major victories Tuesday as voters in conservative-leaning Ohio decisively passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing access to abortion, while those in ruby-red Kentucky reelected a Democratic governor who aggressively attacked his opponent for supporting the state’s near-total ban on the procedure.

In Virginia, a battleground state where Republicans pushed a proposal to outlaw most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, voters appeared likely to deny them unified control of the state legislature. Many Democrats on the ballot campaigned on the issue of abortion.

The results sent a stark signal about enduring demands across the political spectrum to protect access to abortion more than a year after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, heralding potentially far-reaching implications for the 2024 election. They offered more evidence that the end of Roe and the patchwork of abortion bans that followed have given Democrats a powerful argument to turn out their base and sway moderates and some Republicans. And they reaffirmed that GOP candidates who support restrictions are still struggling to find an effective message.

“If I were an antiabortion politician, I’d be scared,” said Tresa Undem, a public opinion researcher who studies abortion and supports abortion rights.

The most direct test of abortion politics came in Ohio, where abortion rights supporters entered Tuesday optimistic that a ballot measure called Issue 1 would pass. Ohioans had already weighed in on a referendum viewed a proxy for the abortion fight, voting in August against a proposal that would have boosted abortion opponents’ chances on Issue 1 by making it harder to amend the state constitution.

Kate Wagner, 51, a registered Republican who has drifted away from the party, said she discussed Issue 1 extensively with her sisters and was voting yes. She didn’t think she would get an abortion, but she also views the issue as deeply personal.

“My whole thing is that I don’t like the idea of typically old White men telling me what I should be able to do,” said Wagner, who is from Springfield, Ohio. “They’ve never been in that position.”

Preliminary exit polls had 1 in 5 Republicans and nearly two-thirds of independents backing the amendment, in a striking illustration of abortion rights’ popularity across party lines. With most of the vote counted late Tuesday, Issue 1 was projected to pass by a 10-point margin, while another ballot measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana was projected to pass, 56 to 44 percent.

Antiabortion advocates had tried to broaden their appeal by stressing that abortion is currently legal in Ohio until 22 weeks of pregnancy – not mentioning that, without further protections for abortion, the state’s Supreme Court could at any time reinstate a ban on the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy.

A clear majority of Ohio voters said they felt “dissatisfied” or “angry” about the overturning of Roe, according to preliminary network exit polling. And while Donald Trump won Ohio by eight percentage points in 2020, the exit polls found a somewhat larger share of voters for President Biden in 2020 turning out for Issue 1 compared with Trump voters – suggesting that Democrats were particularly motivated.

But antiabortion advocates were adamant that Ohio should not be seen as a test case for 2024.

“I think people are overinterpreting what this means on a national level,” said Kristi Hamrick, vice president of media and policy for Students for Life of America, one of the largest national antiabortion groups. “Each fight is unique.”

Abortion was just one factor of many in the complex races that played out Tuesday, testing voters’ mood and satisfaction with both parties. Democrats were working to outperform an unpopular president; Republicans were facing their own woes with chaos in Congress and continued fealty to former president Trump, a polarizing figure to many moderate voters who is well-positioned to become the party’s 2024 presidential nominee.

Yet the issue was an important through line, and strategists from both parties were watching closely for clues to their best path in 2024. That was evident in Kentucky, where the campaign of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear put millions behind ads attacking his Republican challenger, Daniel Cameron, on abortion – even though Republicans’ supermajority in the legislature means the gubernatorial race’s impact on abortion policy is highly limited.

One of the first people Beshear thanked on Tuesday night was Hadley Duvall, a young woman who appeared in one of his campaign ads, which went viral. In the commercial, Duvall tells voters that she was sexually assaulted by her stepfather when she was 12 and blasts Cameron’s support for Kentucky’s abortion ban without exceptions for rape and incest.

“Because of her courage, this commonwealth is going to be a better place and people are going to reach out for the help they need,” Beshear said.

In interviews, it was clear the ad had made an impression with Democrats and Republicans alike – and abortion was often one of the first issues that Kentuckians, especially young voters, brought up while explaining their pick for governor. Cameron said this fall he would sign exceptions for abortions in cases of rape and incest if legislators passed them, but he has also defended the current law in court.

“People who aren’t ready to have kids, people who can’t raise children, need and deserve that option,” said Rebekah Flowers, a 20-year-old student at the University of Louisville, calling Cameron “extreme” on abortion. She was a bit disappointed that Beshear didn’t mention the issue in his brief remarks at a rally on her campus last week.

Just a few years ago, Republicans in Kentucky were the ones leaning into abortion as a line of attack. But after the end of Roe, which established a constitutional right to abortion, it has become a potent issue for Democrats. Voters there last year declined to amend their state constitution to say it does not guarantee a right to abortion access – underscoring a deep disconnect between public opinion and the near-total abortion ban that took effect in Kentucky after Roe fell.

Some Republicans have tried to soften their pitch on abortion and appeal to moderates after strict bans helped sink many GOP candidates in last year’s midterms. But Tuesday’s elections underscored the party’s continued vulnerability on the issue.

“I believe that voters – Democrats, independents and a growing number of Republicans – are going to support those candidates, [irrespective] of their party affiliation, who are going to protect and strengthen our democracy and who are going to restore those freedoms that politicians have taken away from us,” said Rep. Greg Landsman (D), who represents a purple district in Ohio.

Democrats had been optimistic heading into Tuesday’s votes, buoyed by the fact that, since Roe was overturned, voters had backed abortion rights in ballot measure fights in six states across the political spectrum: California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont.

Abortion was also front and center in many down-ballot races. In Pennsylvania, a key swing state, a state Supreme Court race drew more than $17 million in TV ad spending, with many of the ads touching on abortion rights. Democrat Daniel McCaffery, who was projected to win, began one of his ads by saying that “our freedoms are under attack – workers’ rights, women’s reproductive rights, the right to vote.”

After a series of defeats since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, many antiabortion advocates saw Tuesday’s contests as their last opportunity to find a winning message on abortion ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Across Virginia, Republicans tried to win over moderates with a 15-week abortion ban, emphasizing that such a measure would allow the vast majority of abortions to continue. On the campaign trail, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin was careful to refer to the proposed restriction as a “limit” on abortion, avoiding the word “ban.”

“I think this is a choice between no limits and reasonable limits, and I think this is one where Virginians come together around reasonableness,” Youngkin said in a television interview Sunday.

But Democrats had won or were leading in 22 out of the 40 state Senate districts Tuesday night and appeared likely to maintain control of the chamber, denying Youngkin unified Republican control of government.

In one of the state’s most closely watched contests, Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg flipped a Republican-held seat in the suburbs of Richmond after emphasizing his commitment to protect abortion rights in the state.

His opponent, Republican Siobhan Dunnavant, made a 15-week abortion ban a cornerstone of her campaign. An OB/GYN, Dunnavant aired a television ad in which she spoke to voters about her position on abortion, arguing that the current Virginia law, which allows abortions until 27 weeks of pregnancy, is “not reasonable.”

“It is unnecessary, extreme and heartbreaking,” she said in the ad.

Republicans who have successfully passed antiabortion laws in other states expressed frustration with the results Tuesday night.

“I think the pro-life movement has got to get off its butt and start articulating to the American people why a baby should not be aborted after, say, the 13th week of pregnancy,” North Carolina state Sen. Amy Galey (R) said, even as she also criticized Democratic attacks as misleading. Galey helped write a 12-week abortion law that passed in her state last spring.

But opponents of abortion had mixed ideas Tuesday on the best path forward.

Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, said Republicans need to fully embrace that this fight is about abortion, instead of burying the issue in messaging about parents’ rights or the well-being of the mother.

Patrick Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said that abortion supporters need to regroup and prioritize legislation aimed at supporting mothers and babies – paid leave, child tax credits, Medicaid expansion for pregnant women – “coupled with crystal-clear exemptions in the case of rape, incest and the life of the mother,” Brown said.

Democrats have already signaled they will make abortion a key issue in the presidential race, no matter who is the GOP nominee. Republican candidates are divided on the issue, with Trump backing away from the strict bans he paved the way for by appointing antiabortion justices to the Supreme Court.

Despite that retreat, “there is nothing that will be complicated about attacking [Trump] on this issue,” said Pat Dennis, the president of American Bridge, a Democratic group that has focused much of its opposition research on Republican candidates on their abortion stances.

There are also efforts underway to put abortion directly on the 2024 ballot in many other states, including battleground Arizona.