During the half-century when Roe v. Wade was law, anti-abortion advocates and their Republican allies frequently complained that the right of “the people” to determine abortion policy had been stolen by the unelected Supreme Court. It became a classic “wedge issue” benefiting the GOP, as frustrated traditionalist Catholics and conservative Evangelical Protestants left the Democratic Party in droves, providing votes and grassroots muscle to the GOP for decades. This legacy culminated in the devil’s bargain that cultural conservatives struck with Donald Trump in 2016.
Well, in the 13 months since the newly reactionary Supreme Court created by Trump reversed Roe and “the people” regained that right (which in reality meant the right to deny other people reproductive rights), voters in red and blue states alike have wherever possible used this freedom to restore the rights the courts and Republican legislators have sought to steal. It happened again on Tuesday in Ohio, the Republican-trending former battleground state where voters decisively rejected a sneaky GOP bid to make it harder to write abortion rights into the state’s constitution through a ballot initiative in November.
This is the seventh statewide abortion-ballot measure since Roe was reversed, and pro-choice forces have won every one of them, even in conservative states like Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, and now Ohio. When Ohio voters (more than likely) enact the constitutional amendment Republicans failed to block, the tally will be 8–0. And in 2024, voters in at least seven other states will decide on measures to protect or deny abortion rights.
If the rout continues, giving “the people” control over abortion policy may be quite the pyrrhic victory for the anti-abortion movement and even more so for the GOP whose electoral fortunes could be caught in the powerful backlash to Roe’s reversal. That backlash is already the prime suspect in the disappointing 2022 midterm results for Republicans who expected a “red wave” that never quite materialized. But the depth and breadth of popular commitment to abortion rights going into what may be an apocalyptic 2024 presidential cycle remains significantly unclear.
It should be understood, however, that the option of using “direct democracy” to restore abortion rights via citizen-initiated constitutional amendments that circumvent Republican legislators (as has now happened in both Michigan and Ohio) is available only in a total of 16 states. Voters may also fight back in cases where GOP lawmakers are trying to abolish state constitutional abortion rights that have been recognized by state courts and need voter ratification of their handiwork (that’s what happened in 2022 in Kansas and Kentucky). But to a significant extent, the fate of the right to choose in many politically contested states will continue to depend on partisan control of major offices, including legislative chambers, governorships, and in some cases elected judges. And that’s aside from the power of Congress to preempt state abortion laws if one party or the other secures a trifecta and can overcome a Senate filibuster. So even in states with no abortion ballot test on tap in 2024, the subject will very much be on the ballot via the two polarized pro-choice and anti-abortion major parties.
The pro-choice state-ballot-measure winning streak, the impact of the subject on key 2022 races, and bountiful polling showing pro-choice majorities in all but the most conservative corners of the country have combined to convince many Republican operatives and even elected officials that the subject is a loser for the GOP. When Donald Trump said just that at the beginning of 2023, it produced a lot of consternation among anti-abortion advocates who had previously adored him for his successfully redeemed promise to appoint justices who would overturn Roe. The Ohio results will convince even more Republicans that the 45th president was right. Perhaps they will even whisper to their abortion-obsessed allies in and beyond religious conservative circles to show some patience, keep their mouths shut, and help the GOP obtain enough power to give their friends what they want when political conditions are more favorable.
But now that Roe is gone, abortion politics is a 24/7 business, and anti-abortion activists are out of patience; that’s particularly true among the newer and more militant organizations like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and Students for Life. They are eager to use the competitive Republican presidential-nomination contest to increase, not hide, their leverage over the GOP, and Trump’s candid remarks on abortion politics have encouraged his rivals to pledge greater allegiance to the cause. Mike Pence and Tim Scott have both leapt to embrace the hard-core position of favoring a national six-week abortion ban. Ron DeSantis has punctuated his effort to run to Trump’s right by bragging to Iowans about the six-week ban (deemed “too harsh” by Trump) he signed in Florida.
It’s possible Trump will cruise to the nomination without renewing the vows underlying his marriage of convenience to the anti-abortion movement, and abortion will recede as a 2024 campaign issue. But national Democrats, who know a good wedge issue when they see one, almost certainly won’t let general-election voters who is pledged to protect abortion rights and who has worked hard to abolish them. We don’t have a partisan breakdown of the vote from Ohio (the state does not have voter registration by party), but there were clear indications the “No on Issue 1” coalition included quite a few Republican voters, as did the similar pro-choice coalitions in other states with previous abortion-ballot measures. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump has presented county-level data comparing 2020 partisan-vote margins to abortion-ballot measures in Ohio and five other states (California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and Montana) and the results are striking:
“In Ohio, about one-fifth of counties that voted for Trump in 2020 opposed Issue 1. The same pattern held in the six states included above. Of the 510 counties included in the analysis, only two counties that voted for Biden in 2020 also opposed access to abortion. Among Trump-voting counties, 81 supported that access.
“To use the parlance of political observers, abortion, particularly when presented to voters directly, is an effective wedge issue for the left.”
In a hypothetical Biden-Trump general-election rematch, a significant number of anti-Trump Republicans and Republican-leaning independents will be under pressure to defect to Biden, as a decent number did in 2020. Abandoned pro-choice swing voters of every background will have another reason to conduct their own protest against the GOP, or at least split their tickets.
The prominence of the issue will be enhanced in the media and the minds of voters by conspicuous abortion-rights ballot measures that will face 2024 voters in DeSantis’s Florida, and perhaps in ultra-battleground Arizona. It’s a bad look for today’s allegedly populist, anti-elite GOP to deny people fundamental rights or even the power to determine policies affecting their fundamental rights. Abortion rights could be the populist cause of the next decade or so. That’s a real problem for Republicans.