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Republicans can’t sugarcoat their losses on abortion rights anymore

The anti-abortion movement went all in last night. They lost decisively.

A large group of people face a TV screen in a room with tables and chairs, many of them cheering and raising their arms.
Supporters of Ohio Issue 1 cheer as results come in at a watch party on November 7, in Columbus, Ohio.
Andrew Spear/Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

Even before Tuesday’s elections, many progressives insisted the question of whether protecting abortion rights wins elections was already asked and answered. Democrats made abortion rights the centerpiece of their campaign advertising during the 2022 midterms, a cycle where Democrats outperformed expectations, kept control of the US Senate, and staved off a red wave. Polls last year also found abortion rights to be a significantly motivating issue for both independent and Democratic voters.

Abortion rights ballot measures won in all six states where they appeared in 2022, including states like Montana, Kentucky, and Kansas that otherwise elected Republican candidates. Democrats have been winning in special elections where they ran on abortion rights, and surveys suggested voters have grown even more supportive of abortion rights since the repeal of Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

Anti-abortion groups argued in turn that liberals were mistaking correlation for causation; they maintained that confidence in abortion rights messaging was misplaced, and voters would ultimately punish Democrats for their maximalist positions. They pointed out that Democrats tried and failed to unseat anti-abortion governors in the midterms, and applauded winning federal candidates who “went on offense” on abortion, like Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance. The lost referendums, anti-abortion groups insisted, stemmed largely from Republican leaders failing to campaign hard enough and from being outspent, something they promised to never let happen again.

The polling on abortion rights, meanwhile, could be complicated and seem contradictory: Voters sometimes express support for second- and third-trimester bans while signaling strong opposition to restricting access to abortion.

The 2023 election cycle represented a big test: Were abortion rights activists right? Or were anti-abortion leaders correct that the earlier post-Roe losses stemmed from insufficient investment and mealy-mouthed campaigning?

A decisive 13-point victory for protecting abortion rights in red Ohio, wins for Democrats in the Virginia legislature where GOP candidates campaigned on rolling back abortion access to 15 weeks, and the decisive reelection of Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who made protecting abortion rights in his red state central to his campaign, provide the clearest evidence to date that voters of all political persuasions do not support the nationwide attack on reproductive freedom and are voting accordingly.

Anti-abortion leaders tested a host of new tactics this cycle — from rebranding abortion bans as “limits” to claiming the Ohio abortion rights ballot measure was really about curtailing parents’ rights. None of them worked. Republican strategists had been banking on November 7 providing them with proof that voters were sick of Democrats talking about abortion. Virginia was supposed to be a proof of concept that would let Republicans run on a “consensus” position on 15-week bans next year while changing the subject to other topics like crime and immigration.

So Tuesday’s results really were a resounding victory for Democrats and abortion rights supporters — but there are still some caveats and reasons for caution in 2024.

How abortion rights won in Ohio

Anti-abortion leaders recognized how important a win in Ohio would be to changing the narrative ahead of 2024. “A win here would show those other states that will have these ballot measures in the years to come, ‘Hey, these battles can be won,’” Peter Range, the executive director of Ohio Right to Life, told the 19th News in October. The anti-abortion movement threw everything they had at the campaign and still fell far short.

Instead, last night 57 percent of Ohio voters cast their ballot in favor of the constitutional amendment to codify abortion access, despite a significant array of obstacles in a solidly Republican state where Republican elected officials had come out uniformly against the measure.

“Generally speaking, ballot measures in Ohio don’t tend to win,” said Jonathan Robinson, the director of research at Catalist, a liberal voter data analytics firm.

Passing affirmative ballot measures is even harder. In the other conservative states where ballot measures won, abortion rights campaigners organized voters against anti-abortion proposals. Political scientists find it can be easier to be on the “no” side of ballot measure campaigns, since voters have a bias toward maintaining the status quo.

“The reality is Ohio is among the tougher states that we have worked in,” said Joey Teitelbaum, a pollster involved with the Ohio abortion rights campaign, who also worked on winning ballot measures in Colorado, Kansas, and Kentucky. “We stayed focused on a broad values-based message that went beyond partisan politics.”

Though polls indicated Ohio voters were broadly supportive of the proposed amendment, abortion rights advocates were dealing with new hurdles, including an expensive August special election that sought to raise the ballot measure threshold to 60 percent, voter roll purges led by the anti-abortion secretary of state, a misleading intervention from the state’s Republican attorney, and vocal campaigning from the state’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who urged Ohioans to vote no in a TV ad.

The Ohio Ballot Board also drafted its own summary language of the proposed ballot measure, using more politically objectionable terms like “unborn child” instead of “fetus” and refusing to state that the amendment would protect not just access to abortion but also to contraception, miscarriage care, fertility treatment, and continuing pregnancy. Researchers know that the specific language that appears on a ballot can have a significant impact on how voters vote, and a poll released in late October found support for the amendment dropped considerably when voters were presented with the edited language.

“I have never encountered such complete opposition by the state government,” said Ashley All, who served as communications director for the winning pro-abortion rights ballot measure campaign in Kansas and has since consulted on other post-Roe ballot referendums.

Anti-abortion advocates raised millions more dollars than they had in previous ballot measure campaigns, and worked to cast the Ohio amendment as an “anti-parent” measure that would effectively create a new right to gender-affirming surgery for minors. Legal scholars said the fear-mongering about parental consent was unjustified, given Ohio case law and the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court.​

That abortion rights won so decisively against all these odds — and that so many Trump voters proved willing to cross party lines to vote in favor of the amendment — is a sobering result that anti-abortion leaders will struggle to dismiss. For now, the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group is saying it lost because voters incorrectly believed pregnant patients could be denied life-saving medical care. But even in states with exceptions to abortion bans, doctors have been denying or delaying care, fearing funding cuts or criminal prosecution.

How abortion rights won in Virginia

Though Virginians were not casting votes on a ballot measure, it was no secret that the Virginia legislative elections were largely being fought over abortion.

“It almost feels like we’re running a single-issue campaign on this one,” J. Miles Coleman, of the UVA Center for Politics, said last week. Among women voters, who make up more than half of Virginia’s election, 70 percent rated abortion as a “very important” issue, up 47 percent from 2019.

All 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly were up for grabs, and Democrats not only retained control of the state Senate but flipped control of the Virginia House.

Youngkin and anti-abortion groups bet that if they could win in Virginia by running emphatically on a 15-week abortion ban, something they cast as a “reasonable” and “consensus” position, then they could prove to Republicans nationwide that abortion need not be a political loser for their party. (The ban, which they called a “limit,” also would have exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.) They also hoped that staking out this position would allow them to more easily change the subject to topics they had advantages on, like crime and the economy.

Prior to the fall of Roe, national polls showed broad support for restricting abortion after 15 weeks, but since the Dobbs decision, voters have been signaling more opposition to the idea. A poll released in mid-October from Christopher Newport University found 54 percent of Virginians opposed the idea of a 15-week ban, and another October survey from the Washington Post-Schar School found 47 percent opposed and 46 percent approved.

Another way to understand the question in Virginia is whether voters would support lawmakers cutting short the window of legal abortion by 12 weeks, since abortion is currently permitted up to 26 weeks and 6 days of a pregnancy in the state.

Voters, though, had good reason to be suspicious Virginia Republicans really would stop at 15 weeks. In Florida, Republicans passed a 15-week ban on abortion in 2022, only to turn around and pass a six-week ban in 2023. Other GOP-led states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio have passed six-week bans.

Multiple videos also emerged of Virginia Republicans admitting they’d likely push for more than they’ve publicly let on. In 2021, an activist secretly recorded Youngkin saying he’d go “on offense” if elected but needed to speak minimally about the topic during campaign season. Two months ago videos surfaced of a House of Delegates candidate saying he’d support a “100 percent” and “total” ban on abortion, and more recently a video of a candidate in a Virginia Senate race showed her saying she’d be interested in pushing beyond a 15-week ban.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll from October found that 51 percent of registered Virginia voters trusted Democrats to handle abortion, compared to 34 percent who trust Republicans.

There are real grounds for abortion rights optimism in 2024

The news out of Ohio is auspicious for those organizing abortion rights ballot measures next year in Arizona, Nevada, Florida, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. Abortion rights have had a 7-0 winning streak on the ballot since Roe v. Wade was overturned, and Republicans’ fear-mongering rhetoric about parents’ rights and abortion “up until birth” seemed to have failed. While Americans tend to be more uncomfortable with abortions later in pregnancy, voters seem to understand they are extremely rare, and typically associated with fetal anomalies, threats to a mother’s life, and barriers to care that delay access to the procedure.

Evidence continues to mount that voters are willing to cross party lines when it comes to protecting access to reproductive health care. If abortion rights campaigners can continue to frame the issue in a nonpartisan way, their odds of success in the next round of ballot measures look good. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s strong reelection in Kentucky is also an encouraging signal that Democrats can campaign openly on abortion rights in red states and still win.

It’s hard to overstate how much the loss in Virginia complicates’ Republicans’ 2024 campaign plans. Virginia was supposed to show that Republicans could cast Democrats as extremists, proactively pursue reductions in abortion access, and still win, even among Biden-leaning voters. The GOP wanted to show Republicans could “neutralize” the abortion issue, so that swing voters would feel more comfortable voting on other topics they trusted Republicans on. Youngkin insisted voters are “ready to move on and talk about topics besides abortion.”

The fact that Republicans failed so spectacularly doesn’t mean Republicans won’t try this strategy again next year, but it does represent a rather clarifying result — and one that should make GOP strategists pretty nervous, especially given that most voters think Republicans want to ban abortion in all or most cases.

How things could still go poorly for abortion rights in 2024

While things have gone well for abortion rights campaigners thus far, most will admit they were certainly not sure things would play out as they did. And, as anti-abortion leaders are quick to point out, Democrats tried and failed to unseat anti-abortion governors like Brian Kemp in Georgia, Kim Reynolds in Iowa, Mike DeWine in Ohio, and Ron DeSantis in Florida last year, showing that it’s not dispositive that politicians will pay a price for restricting access to abortion.

“In the midterms, yes, abortion mattered in certain places, and democracy issues mattered on certain races. But not all of them,” Ashley All told Vox. “Florida voted exactly as Florida does. Political observers and pundits want to make blanket statements about how things will impact an election, but everyone who works on campaigns knows it doesn’t work like that.”

Another concern is that Youngkin’s prediction was just premature and that voters will in fact grow more tired of hearing about attacks on abortion rights the further out from Dobbs the country gets. Republicans bet wrongly on that happening in 2022 and 2023, but experts admit it’s hard to know what will be animating voters a year from now, especially given how exhausted the electorate seems to be these days.

“Generally people seem a little burnt out,” said Robinson, of Catalist. “The level of political donations for Democrats and Republicans is down a lot, which suggests a sag in interest in politics. Interest in the Republican presidential primary is really low.” Though turnout on November 7 was high, the abortion rights measure in Ohio received nearly as many votes as Republican Sen. J.D. Vance did in 2022.

Reproductive rights campaigners also say the public should not underestimate how tough a fight they faced this year in Ohio compared to the previous six ballot measure campaigns in 2022. Anti-abortion politicians are likely to continue their efforts to curb access to the ballot, and invest heavily in TV and digital advertising aimed at confusing voters. This year abortion rights activists benefited from Ohio being the only ballot measure campaign in the country, helping them to raise three times as much money as their opponents, with most money coming from out of state.

Next year, when there are more expensive ballot measures competing for both media attention and political donations, on top of a surely consuming presidential contest and a bevy of congressional and gubernatorial elections, advocates say the fundraising landscape for abortion rights referendums may be much more difficult.