Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, argued that Tuesday’s vote over how to amend the State Constitution was about protecting the state from a flood of special interest money. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, another Republican, urged voters to protect the “very foundational rules” of their constitution.
But Ohio voters clearly didn’t buy it. About three million of them showed up to vote for abortion rights — an issue that was not technically on the ballot, but was the undeniable force that transformed what would have normally been a little-noticed election over an arcane legislative proposal into a national event.
For decades, a majority of Americans supported some form of legalized abortion. But the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade has shifted the political intensity on the issue, reshaping a once mostly-silent coalition of liberal, swing and moderate Republican voters into a political force. It’s a force Democrats are working hard to harness in elections across the country next year, often with ballot measures, and it’s a power Republicans have yet to figure out how to match, or at least manage.
“We’ve taken it on the chin since Dobbs,” said Michael Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life in Columbus, Ohio, who helped organize efforts supporting the proposal on Tuesday. “One of the things we learned was to get out in front and get out ahead and don’t wait because you’ll be run over by the train.”
Officially, Ohio voters were being asked whether to make it harder to amend the State Constitution by raising the threshold to enact a new constitutional amendment from a simple majority to 60 percent and increase the requirements to get such initiatives on the ballot.
In remarks before party activists and in strategy memos, Republican officials acknowledged that the measure was an attempt to make it harder for abortion rights supporters to pass a ballot measure scheduled for November that would add an amendment protecting abortion rights to the State Constitution. Those private comments fueled a firestorm of national media coverage, nearly $20 million in political spending and surprisingly high turnout for an election in the dead of summer.
Nearly twice as many people voted on the Ohio measure than cast ballots in primaries for governor, Senate, House and other marquee statewide races last year.
The power of abortion to mobilize a majority coalition has armed Democrats with a potent new political tool, particularly in crucial battlegrounds like Michigan, Ohio and Arizona where Republican legislatures moved quickly to restrict abortion rights. Already, Democrats are looking ahead to 2024, with activists in around 10 states considering efforts to put abortion protections in state constitutions.
If they succeed, those efforts could help boost Democratic turnout in key states — including Arizona, both a presidential battleground and home to a key Senate race next year, and Florida, a traditional swing state that has slipped away from the party in recent elections.
The Ohio defeat was powered by a strong showing from Democratic and swing voters. Opponents over performed in some critical suburban battleground counties. In Athens, for example, a Democratic bastion and the home of Ohio University, voters opposed the measure by 71 percent. Last fall, former Representative Tim Ryan, the Democratic candidate who lost a Senate race to J.D. Vance, a Republican, won the county by 61 percent.
But there were also signs that moderate, and even some conservative voters, were against the idea. In November, 66 percent of voters in Defiance County, a conservative area in the northwest corner of the state, backed Mr. Vance. Only 61 percent supported the proposal to amend the state constitution.
“We’ve never seen this amount of spending or attention on an issue related to ballot measure processes and I can tell you it’s not because everyone inherently cares about what the rules are on ballot issues,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, which has helped run nearly three dozen ballot measures. “The attention from both sides can only be attributed to the implications for the abortion issue.”
After spending nearly a half century pushing against Roe, Republicans have struggled to adapt, trapped between a party base that still largely opposes abortion rights and a country that broadly supports them.
Abortion played a significant role in motivating key parts of the Democratic base to the polls during the midterm elections. Abortion-related initiatives won in all six states where they appeared on the ballot in 2022 and likely helped to boost turnout for the Democratic ticket in those places. In red and purple states — Michigan, Kentucky and Kansas — the vote for abortion rights was between 52 percent and 59 percent — just below the 60 percent threshold Ohio Republicans were trying to set.
This year, Democrats prevailed in a contest for the Wisconsin Supreme Court where their candidate focused on her support for abortion rights in a state with a law banning the procedure.
Abortion is legal in Ohio until 22 weeks of pregnancy. After the Supreme Court decision, a law banning abortion at six weeks took effect but was blocked by a state judge while litigation proceeded — which it still is.
With Tuesday’s referendum, Republican lawmakers attempted a version of the kind of two-track strategy their party had done successfully for years. To conservative voters, they emphasized the measure’s role in raising the bar for the abortion amendment while, to other audiences, they talked about other potential impacts.
For Republicans, the challenge is that most of their voters are out-of-step with the broader electorate. Polling conducted last month by The New York Times/Siena College found that 61 percent of voters believe abortion should be all or mostly legal, a view shared by majorities in every region of the country, across all income levels, ages, racial groups and of both men and women. But 57 percent of Republicans believe the procedure should be all or mostly illegal.
On the presidential primary campaign trail, Republican candidates have largely tried to avoid spending too much time on the specifics of the issue. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed legislation prohibiting most abortions after six weeks in his home state, but has stopped short of embracing a federal ban.
Others, including Senator Tim Scott, back a 15-week federal ban. And former President Donald J. Trump, who takes credit for appointing three of the Supreme Court Justices who voted to overturn Roe, has not endorsed any kind of restrictions. He’s expressed concerns that moving too far to the right on abortion could cost Republicans votes, saying it could make it “very, very hard to win an election.”
But Republicans are unlikely to evade the topic in the general election.
In a post-Roe world, where protecting abortion rights has become a priority for a larger swath of voters, the old strategies don’t work quite as well. Katie Paris, the founder of Red, Wine and Blue, a group that organizes suburban women voters for Ohio Democrats, said she saw voters who wouldn’t normally have tuned into a summer election on an obscure political process get engaged. Abortion, she said, snaps them to attention.
“There’s constant evidence of how personal this is,” she said. “It’s the perfect case study.”