Abortion issues burn GOP again, as Democrats battle big election night: Analysis
A year after the expected “red wave” turned into a powerful one, conservative campaign messaging in 2023 has sought to adapt to emerging realities.
In Ohio, strategists tried to avoid a straight vote on abortion rights like the one that occurred Tuesday. In Virginia, the popular Republican governor sought to be confrontational on the issue while trying to redefine the terms of the polarizing debate. And in Kentucky, a rising black Republican star ran for governor defending his state’s abortion ban, while opening the door to new exceptions.
It appears that none of these options worked for the Republican Party on Tuesday.
Instead, Election Day 2023 continued a streak of conservative losses on abortion-related issues that began virtually the moment the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year — and that extended across blue, red and decidedly purple states.
In Republican-leaning Ohio, voters comfortably approved an amendment to the state constitution that provides the right to abortion, ABC News predicted. This would override a GOP ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy that has been tied up by legal challenges.
In Democratic-leaning Virginia, with results incomplete until late Tuesday, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s widespread popularity among local residents appears to have failed to deliver his party’s unified control of the state legislature, as Democrats had — at least – Projected by the Associated Press to hold the state Senate, despite Youngkin’s heavy involvement in the races.
That outcome would put aside the bill Youngkin campaigned on — a proposal he called a “reasonable” measure to largely ban abortions after 15 weeks — and potentially create a quiet presidential buzz around the Virginia governor.
In solidly Republican Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was expected to win re-election on Tuesday while attacking his state’s abortion ban as extreme. This law went into effect despite voters’ rejection of a constitutional amendment that sought to do the same thing.
A word of caution: The sporadic races that caught national attention this year did so for several reasons. Many of them have resorted to intense local dynamics that are difficult to extrapolate beyond state or legislative district boundaries.
Taken together, however, they point to a potentially winning message for Democrats that cannot succeed despite President Joe Biden’s declining approval ratings and despite former President Donald Trump’s extreme popularity in the country’s GOP-heavy pockets.
“It’s a wake-up call for the Democratic Party to say: It’s time to think about Ohio and put it back in the game,” Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb told ABC News on Tuesday. “When you see this extreme Republican movement, the majority of people in our state are not going to want this type of policy on the books.”
Voters in Ohio joined voters in California, Michigan and Vermont in enshrining abortion rights in their state constitutions. Voters in Kansas, Montana and Kentucky also rejected nearly identical efforts that would have banned abortion in the wake of the Dobbs ruling.
These votes bolster efforts to put abortion on ballots in other states including Arizona, Florida, Missouri and Nevada next year. (Ohio Democrats may want to put the constitutional amendment there for a vote next year, with the presidential race and incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown on the ballot in 2024.)
The results in Ohio showed the extent to which voters can be reshaped statewide depending on the issues at hand. Exit polls showed voters Tuesday night actually backed President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump by a 45-43% margin in 2020 — despite Biden losing the state 53-45. Self-described liberals make up 34% of voters, a margin unseen in state polls in nearly 40 years.
This result should not be confused with a sudden increase in support for Biden. The same exit poll showed that 73% of Ohio voters on Tuesday did not want Biden to run again, compared to 63% who said the same about Trump.
But the coalition of voters who turned out Tuesday gives some Democrats in the state hope that places like Ohio will be competitive again, in a race framed against conservative extremism.
In that state, Republicans led a proposed rule change to make it harder to pass a state constitutional amendment, but they largely failed to do so over the summer — and then lost on the same abortion issue on Tuesday. Voters at the same time were also expected to support legalizing recreational marijuana, a move that conservatives also oppose.
Abortion wasn’t directly on the ballot elsewhere this year — in the Mississippi governor’s race, for example, both candidates supported significant restrictions and Democrat Brandon Pressley ultimately capitulated to Republican incumbent Tate Reeves — but the results in Kentucky bucked the year’s trends Presidential. Even more clearly than in Ohio’s results.
Trump won Kentucky by more than 25 points in 2020, but Republican Daniel Cameron — who was featured at Trump’s convention, and who Trump endorsed as a “young star” — lost to Beshear, who himself ousted an incumbent GOP president to win his first victory. In 2019 by a narrower margin.
“It was a victory that sends a message loud and clear — a message that candidates should run for something, not against someone,” Beshear said in his victory speech late Tuesday.
Are you also having a less than stellar night? Youngkin, whose national profile rose through his efforts to rally his state behind abortion restrictions that he sought to sell as a “reasonable” compromise position. Along the way, he pointedly refused to rule out a run for president in 2024, while making clear that he is flattered by the attention and eager to see his concepts of governance adopted beyond his home state.
“I think this is an opportunity for Virginia to prove that it is a leader in bringing people together on one of the toughest topics in America. And I think we can lead here,” Youngkin told ABC News on Tuesday evening, before polls closed. Virginia.
One of the most notable GOP losses that night was a Republican state senator who works as an obstetrician-gynecologist. Senator Siobhan Dunavant was at the forefront of an effort led by Youngkin to send positive messages about what she called potential “common ground” on abortion.
As the dust settled as of Tuesday, the GOP’s difficulties in messaging about abortion were made more clear. For all the political problems Biden and national Democrats face, their party has shown the ability to pull off surprise victories when the issues go their way.
This article originally appeared on abcnews.go.com