The Next Test for the Abortion-Rights Movement
Republicans are trying to make it harder to enshrine abortion rights in Ohio. Will voters go along? F or the 150 or so people who filled a church hall in Toledo, Ohio, for a Thursday-night campaign rally last week, the chant of the evening featured a profanity usually discouraged in a house of God. With all due respect, pastor, hell no! shouted Betty Montgomery, a former Ohio attorney general. Montgomery is a Republican, which gave the largely Democratic audience even more reason to roar with approval. They had gathered at the Warren AME Church, in Toledo, to voice their opposition to a constitutional amendment that Ohio voters will approve or reject in a statewide referendum on August 8. Many of those in the boisterous crowd were experiencing a feeling unfamiliar to Democrats in the state over the past decade: optimism. If enacted, the Republican-backed proposal known as Issue 1 would raise the bar for any future changes to the state constitution. Currently, constitutional amendments in Ohioincluding the one on next weeks ballotneed only a bare majority of voters to pass; the proposal seeks to make the threshold a 60-percent supermajority. In other years, a rules tweak like this one might pass without much notice. But next weeks referendum has galvanized Democratic opposition inside and outside Ohio, turning what the GOP had hoped would be a sleepy summertime election into an expensive partisan proxy battle. Conservatives have argued that making the constitution harder to amend would protect Ohio from liberal efforts to raise the minimum wage, tighten gun laws, and fight climate change. But the Republican-controlled legislature clearly timed this referendum to intercept a progressive march on one issue in particular: Ohioans will decide in November whether to make access to abortion a constitutional right, and the outcome of next weeks vote could mean the difference between victory and defeat for backers of abortion rights. A year after the fall of Roe v. Wade , the back-to-back votes will also test whether abortion as an issue can still propel voters to the polls in support of Democratic candidates and causes. If the abortion-rights side wins next week and in November, Ohio would become the largest GOP-controlled state to enshrine abortion protections into law. The abortion-rights movement is trying to replicate the success it found last summer in another red state, Kansas, where voters decisively rejected an amendment that would have allowed the legislature to ban abortion, presaging a midterm election in which Democrats performed better than expected in states where abortion rights were under threat. Read: The Kansas abortion shocker To prevent Democratic attempts to circumvent conservative state legislatures, Republican lawmakers have sought to restrict ballot initiatives across the country. Similar efforts are under way or have already won approval in states including Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, and Idaho. But to Democrats in Ohio and beyond, the August special election is perhaps the most brazen effort yet by Republicans to subvert the will of voters. Polls show that in Ohio, the abortion-rights amendment is likely to win more than 50 percent of the vote, as have similar ballot measures in other states. For Republicans to propose raising the threshold three months before the abortion vote in November looks like a transparent bid to move the proverbial goalposts right when their opponents are about to score. I dont think Ive seen such a naked attempt to stay in power, a former Democratic governor of Ohio, Dick Celeste, told the church crowd in Toledo. As in Kansas a year ago, the Republican majority in the state legislature scheduled the referendum for Augusta time when the party assumed turnout would be low and favorable to their cause. (Adding to the Democratic outrage is the fact that just a few months earlier, Ohio Republicans had voted to restrict local governments from holding August elections, because they tend to draw so few people.) Theyre trying to slip it in, Kelsey Suffel, a Democratic voter from Perrysburg, told me after she had cast an early vote. That Ohio Republicans would try a similar gambit so soon after the defeat their counterparts suffered in Kansas struck many Democrats as a sign of desperation. The winds of change are blowing, Celeste said in Toledo. Theyre afraid, and they should be afraid, because the people wont tolerate it. The upcoming vote will serve as an important measure of strength for Ohio Democrats ahead of elections in the state next year that could determine control of Congress. Democrats have had a long losing streak in Ohio. Donald Trump easily won the state in 2016 and 2020, and Republicans have won every statewide office except for that of Senator Sherrod Brown, who faces reelection next year. Still, theres reason to believe Celeste is right to be optimistic. A Suffolk University poll released last week found that 57 percent of registered voters planned to vote against Issue 1. (A private survey commissioned by a nonpartisan group also found the August amendment losing, a Republican who had seen the results told me on the condition of anonymity.) Early-voting numbers have swamped predictions of low participation in an August election, suggesting that abortion remains a key motivator for getting people to turn out. Groups opposing the amendment have significantly outspent supporters of the change. Abortion isnt explicitly on the ballot in Ohio next week, but the clear linkage between this referendum and the one on reproductive rights in November has divided the Republican coalition. Although the states current Republican governor, Mike DeWine, backs Issue 1, the two living GOP former governors, Bob Taft and John Kasich, oppose it as an overreach by the legislature. Thats the giant cloud on this issue, Steve Stivers, a former Republican member of Congress who now heads the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, told me. The Chamber of Commerce backs the amendment because, as Stivers said, itll help stop bad ideas such as raising the minimum wage, marijuana legalization, and proposals supported by organized labor. But, he said, many of his members were worried that the group would be dragged into a fight over abortion, on which it wants to stay neutral: The timing is not ideal. Read: Its abortion, stupid Democrats have highlighted comments from Republicans who have departed from the partys official message and drawn a connection between the August referendum and the abortion vote this fall. Theyve all said the quiet part out loud, which is this election is 100 percent about trying to prevent abortion rights from having a fair election in the fall, the state Democratic chair, Liz Walters, told me. But to broaden its coalition, opponents of the amendment have advanced a simpler argumentpreserve majority rulethat also seems to be resonating with voters. Im in favor of democracy, explained Ed Moritz, an 85-year-old retired college professor standing outside his home in Cleveland, when I asked him why he was planning to vote no. Once a national bellwether, Ohio has become close to a one-party state in recent years. For Democrats, citizen-led constitutional amendments represent one of the few remaining checks on a legislature dominated by Republicans. Moritz noted that the GOP had already gerrymandered the Ohio legislature by drawing maps to ensure its future majorities. This, he said, is an attempt to gerrymander the entire population. T o Frank LaRose , the suggestion that Issue 1 represents an assault on democracy is hyperbole. LaRose is Ohios Republican secretary of state and, of late, the public face of Issue 1. Traversing Ohio over the past few weeks, hes used the suddenly high-profile campaign as a launching pad for his bid for the Republican nomination for Senate in 2024. LaRose, 44, served for eight years in the state Senate before becoming Ohios top elections officer in 2019. (He won a second term last year.) Hes a smooth debater and quick on his feet, but on the Issue 1 campaign, hes not exactly exuding confidence. In an interview, he began by rattling off a litany of complaints about the oppositions messaging, which he called intentionally misleading. LaRose accused Issue 1s opponents of trying to bamboozle conservative voters with literature showing images of the Constitution being cut to pieces and equating the amendment with Stop the Steal. Thats completely off base, he said. Weve had to compete with that and with a mountain of money that theyve had, and with a pretty organized and intentional effort by the media on this. LaRose likes to remind people that even if voters approve Issue 1, citizens would still be able to pass, with a simple majority, ballot initiatives to create or repeal statutes in Ohio law. The August proposal applies only to the state constitution, which LaRose said is not designed for policy making. Left unsaid, however, is that unlike an amendment to the constitution, any statutory change approved by the voters could swiftly be reversed by the Republican majority in the legislature. Imagine if the U.S. Constitution changed every year, he said. What instability would that create? Well, thats whats at risk if we dont pass Issue 1. LaRoses argument ignored the fact that Ohios rules for constitutional amendments have been in place for more than a century and, during that time, just 19 of the 77 changes proposed by citizen petitions have passed. (Many others generated by the legislature have won approval by the voters.) LaRose has been spending a lot of his time explaining the amendment to confused voters, including Republicans. When I spoke with him last weekend, he had just finished addressing about two dozen people inside a cavernous 19th-century church in Steubenville. He described his stump speech as a seventh-grade civics class in which he explained the differences between the rarely amended federal Constitution and Ohios routinely amended founding document. The laws that Ohio could be saddled with if the voters reject Issue 1, LaRose warned, went far beyond abortion: Its every radical West Coast policy that they can think of that they want to bring to Ohio. The challenges LaRose has faced in selling voters on the proposal soon became apparent. When I asked a pair of women who had questioned LaRose during his speech whether he had persuaded them, one simply replied, No. Another frustrated attendee who supported the proposal told LaRose that she had encountered voters who didnt understand the merits of the idea. Republicans have had to spend more time than theyd like defending their claim that Issue 1 is not simply an effort to head off Novembers abortion amendment. They have also found themselves playing catch-up on an election that they placed on the ballot. They got out of the gate earlier than our side, the state Republican Party chair, Alex Triantafilou, told me, referring to an early round of TV ads that opposition groups began running throughout the state. David Frum: The humiliating Ohio Senate race The GOPs struggle to sell its proposal to voters adds to the perception that the party, in placing the measure on the ballot, was acting not from a position of strength but of weakness. The thinly disguised effort to preempt a simple-majority vote on abortion is surely a concession by Republicans that they are losing on the issue even in what has become a reliably red state. When I asked LaRose to respond to the concerns about abortion that Stivers reported from his members in the Chamber of Commerce, he lamented that it was another example of businesses succumbing to cancel culture. C onfidence can be dangerous for a Democrat in Ohio. Barack Obama carried the state twice, but in both 2016 and 2020, late polls showing a tight race were proved wrong by two eight-point Trump victories. A similar trajectory played out last year, when the Republican J. D. Vance pulled away from the Democrat Tim Ryan in the closing weeks to secure a seven-point victory in Ohios Senate race. Democrats in the state are beaten down, says Matt Caffrey, the Columbus-based organizing director for Swing Left, a national group that steers party donors and volunteers to key races across the country. Hes seen the decline firsthand, telling me of the challenge Democrats have had in recruiting canvassers and engaging voters who have grown more discouraged with each defeat. That began to change this summer, Caffrey told me. Volunteers have flocked to canvassing events in large numbers, some for the first timea highly unusual occurrence for a midsummer special election, he said. At a canvass launch I attended in Akron over the weekend, more than three dozen people showed up, including several first-timers. As I followed Democratic canvassers there and in Cleveland over two days last week, not a single voter who answered their door was unaware of the election or undecided about how theyd vote. Its kind of an easy campaign, Michael Todd, a canvasser with the group Ohio Citizen Action in Cleveland, told me. Not a whole lot of convincing needs to be done. The response has prompted some Democrats to see the August election as an unexpected opportunity to reawaken a moribund state party. The referendum is a first for Swing Left, which has exclusively invested in candidate races since it formed after Trumps victory in 2016. Its a great example of what were seeing across the country, which is the fight for reproductive freedom and the fight for democracy becoming closely attached, the groups executive director, Yasmin Radjy, told me in Akron. We also think its really important to build momentum in Ohio, a state that we need to keep investing in. A win next week would make the abortion referendum a heavy favorite to pass in November. And although Ohio is unlikely to regain its status as a presidential swing state in 2024, it could help determine control of Congress. Browns bid for a fourth term is expected to be one of the hardest-fought Senate races in the country, and at least three Ohio districts could be up for grabs in the closely divided House. For Democrats like Caffrey, the temptation to think bigger about a comeback in Ohio is tempered by the lingering uncertainty about next weeks outcomewhether the party will finally close out a victory in a state that has turned red, or confront another disappointment. It would be hard for Democrats in Ohio to feel complacent. I wish we would be in a position to feel complacent, Caffrey said with a smile. This is more about building hope.