Buckeye blitz: Abortion shapes Ohio politics months after voters guarantee access – Washington Examiner

The presidential primary season may be over with President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump heading for a rematch, but several down-ballot races are up for grabs that will determine control of Congress. Ohio’s primary on Tuesday decided which Republican will take on Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown in November, as well as congressional contests key to the GOP House majority. This series, Buckeye Blitz, will examine the politics behind the races and the issues that will drive 2024 turnout. Part Four, below, looks at how the politics of abortion will carry into the 2024 cycle despite a ballot measure that enshrined access to the procedure.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio voters ended a bitter fight over abortion last year when they resoundingly approved a ballot measure guaranteeing access in the state constitution.

But the prospect of a national ban plus a lingering battle over how to implement the language have kept the political flashpoint alive heading into an election that will decide the partisan makeup of the state Supreme Court and even control of the U.S. Senate.

Republicans are eager to move past a stinging defeat in which 57% of Ohio voters supported the ballot measure, known as Issue 1, in a special election that saw tens of millions pour into the state. The GOP-led legislature attempted to set a 60% floor to change the constitution, seen as a last-minute bid to block the abortion measure, but that initiative failed by the same margin.

It was a rare political loss for Republicans, who control all levers of power in Columbus, and reflected the enduring potency of abortion months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The issue was central to Democrat Emilia Sykes winning a House seat in one of the only swing districts in Ohio in 2022. Democrats had similar success campaigning on abortion in battlegrounds across the country.

The upside of defeat, Republicans hope, is the ballot measure will blunt voter anxiety that a right available for five decades will suddenly be taken away. Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Ohio GOP, says his party can win on abortion if the candidates running show compassion and sensitivity but that it’s “settled law” as a political matter in Ohio.

“Ohio passed this, and we’re respecting the will of the voters here in this state,” he said.

Yet Republicans, in Ohio and beyond, are grappling with a fresh question that has opened them up to further Democratic attacks. Roe returned the issue to the states, but the idea of a federal ban has gained traction in the GOP.

Entrepreneur Bernie Moreno, who won the GOP primary to challenge Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in the fall on Tuesday, is one of those Republicans. He supports a 15-week ban with exceptions for the life of the mother, rape, and incest.

Republicans frame the restriction as commonsense, citing how European countries impose similar bans. “It is far from a radical position. In fact, it’s a position opposing late-term abortion that I would argue most people probably agree with,” said one Moreno adviser.

But it has created a new front in the fight over abortion that keeps the issue in play for another cycle. One Ohio Democratic strategist with experience in Senate races said abortion would be a “huge issue,” while limits on in vitro fertilization present another possible wedge, even as Republicans dismiss it as a fake political issue.

“I think Republicans are saying that it’s settled because they’re not dumb and they desperately don’t want it to be part of the discourse, but there’s no way it won’t be,” the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said.

Democrats would have made abortion central to their messaging no matter who emerged out of the Senate primary — state Sen. Matt Dolan shied away from but did not rule out support for a federal ban — but Moreno’s unequivocal stance gives them the contrast they were hoping for.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee welcomed him to the general election with an ad stating Moreno would “overrule Ohio voters to pass a national abortion ban.”

Republicans downplay the notion that abortion is an electoral threat. The common rebuttal is that issue campaigns are completely different than candidate campaigns. Issue 1 may have attracted broad support, including a fifth of Republican voters, but Triantafilou expects abortion will be subordinated to a larger issue set that includes the economy and immigration. 

Ultimately, the dynamic at the top of the ticket will prove decisive, he suggested, in a state President Joe Biden lost by 8 points in 2020.

“Look, the Democrats are going to want to talk about this. They think they have a winner, but they’re wrong,” Triantafilou said of abortion. “In Ohio, Joe Biden made a mess of things, and everybody here knows it.”

The Senate race, which could decide which party controls the upper chamber next year, is not the only battleground where the politics of abortion will play out. Democrats see an opportunity to flip the state Supreme Court, which is expected to shape how Issue 1 will be implemented. 

Democrats are sober in their prospects for success. Their candidates would have to sweep three seats to erase a Republican majority that has endured for almost four decades.


But a pitched battle for control of the Supreme Court in another state, Wisconsin, has fueled hope that abortion could prove decisive in court races, too. The Democratic candidate won after abortion rights groups made the race about access in November.

“While the voters spoke on it last year, they’re going to continue to hear and understand what’s at stake here,” Jeff Rusnak, a Democratic strategist in Ohio, said of Issue 1. “Whether it’s in the Ohio Supreme Court, or in other cases, this issue is not going away.”