Another election night, another resounding victory for abortion rights in a red state. It is yet another confirmation that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision has created a revolution in American politics, the scope of which is even today only dimly perceived in most national political debates. On its face Ohio’s Issue 1 was an amendment to the state constitution to require a 60% threshold for ballot referendums to change the state constitution. But it was understood from the start as a tool to short-circuit a November ballot initiative to codify abortion rights in the state constitution. On both sides of the question it was fought out on that basis. As I write, “No” (the de facto abortion rights side) is winning by 57% and that may go higher when all ballots are counted.
Abortion rights advocates still need to win the abortion constitutional amendment in November. But it seems highly likely they will succeed. Ohio thus joins Kansas and Kentucky in rejecting restrictions on abortion rights in their respective state constitutions. Last year voters in Michigan enshrined abortion rights in their state constitution and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer leveraged the issue to win unified control of the state in Democratic hands for the first time in decades.
In all but the very most conservative states the only path forward for abortion restrictionists is simply to keep the issue off the ballot.
The broader electoral question is whether the overwhelming backlash against Dobbs will extend to elections beyond ballot initiatives where abortion is literally on the ballot. There is lots of evidence that abortion rights were a key driver of Democrats’ unexpectedly strong showing in the 2022 midterm, though in the nature of things it’s hard to isolate just what role it played in any particular race. The best silver lining for Ohio Republicans is that the abortion referendum this November is in an off year election. It won’t be on the ballot to help Democratic congressional candidates or provide some lift to Sen. Sherrod Brown’s embattled bid for reelection in 2024.
But even here the failure of Issue 1 could impact next year’s congressional elections in Ohio. Democrats and Republicans appear to see Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) as the best positioned nominee to defeat Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown. But LaRose went out on a limb with his open embrace of Issue 1 and tonight it backfired on him in a big way. It’s not that LaRose’s association with Issue 1 would hurt him against Brown in a general election necessarily. But the black eye could wound him in the primary. And that would a significant assist to Brown.
The challenge for Democrats is simply to align as many elections as possible with the abortion issue and the backlash against Dobbs, especially in governorships and election to Congress. There’s little sign the full electoral potential of the issue has even come close to having been harnessed.