Opinion | Why Ohio's special election is very good news for Democrats

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Ohio voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected Issue 1, a Republican-backed ballot measure that would have raised the threshold of support for state constitutional amendments from 50% to 60%.

To outsiders, that might sound like an abstract ballot measure about the details of majority rule and how democracy should function. But most Ohioans saw it for what it was, and for what some Ohio Republicans openly acknowledged it was: an attempt to keep Ohioans from voting for abortion rights. 

In a state presidential candidate Donald Trump won by 8 points twice, voters defeated a Republican maneuver to block abortion rights by a remarkable 14 point margin.

Republicans put the measure up as a cynical effort to block the passage of a November ballot measure that will give Ohioans the opportunity to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. If Tuesday’s ballot measure had passed, then voters who favored abortion rights would’ve had a higher, maybe even impossible, bar to meet in order to secure those rights in November.

One doesn’t have to read between the lines to see that: Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose openly admitted that was the strategy. And that strategy, of course, tracks with the GOP’s tendency to make the democratic process more cumbersome as a way to shield its policy agenda from the will of the people.

Democrats should pay close attention to Ohio’s results. In a state presidential candidate Donald Trump won by 8 points twice, voters defeated a Republican maneuver to block abortion rights by a 14 point margin. Not everybody who voted against the ballot measure was looking to support abortion rights — some voters reportedly expressed objections to the sneakiness of the GOP strategy, for example. Still, abortion rights were top of mind for many voters, and many leading opponents of the ballot measure, just like LaRose did, framed the issue as being about abortion. Thus, Tuesday’s returns serve as yet another data point that abortion rights are a winning issue for Democrats that they’d be wise to lean into as the 2024 elections approach.

Ohio is not the only battleground state where the opportunity to support abortion rights has been shown to effectively mobilize voters. Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s dominant victory in Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court race in April was largely attributed to her support for abortion rights. 

In the midterm elections, abortion rights appeared to be one of the issues that correlated with Democratic overperformance. New York Times political data cruncher Nate Cohn has argued that the presence of abortion referendums on the ballot at different times in 2022 helps explain why Democrats “swept the most competitive districts” in Kansas and Michigan.

Polling on abortion also suggests that making it a top tier issue could be a powerful weapon in 2024. According to the Public Religion Research Institute poll, which surveyed over 20,000 people in all 50 states last year, majorities of residents in 43 states think abortion should be legal, including big majorities in the presidential battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as key 2024 Senate states such as Ohio and West Virginia.

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump published a fascinating analysis Wednesday arguing that abortion measures “break through partisan walls.” He wrote, “A review of six statewide votes since last year, including Ohio’s, shows that in 500 of 510 counties, access to abortion outperformed President Biden’s 2020 results.” According to his analysis, “Across those counties, including a lot of deep-red ones, the margin of support for abortion access topped Biden’s 2020 margin by an average of 26 points, a significant shift to the left.”

Despite their loss Tuesday, Ohio Republicans are thumping their chests and promising that “the war” will continue. But it would be wiser for them to quiet down. The U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade has unleashed a highly mobilized and furious base that sees the GOP’s hostility to abortion rights as an assault on women’s bodies and a denial of their right to full democratic citizenship. All signs suggest that, in many regions of the country, the more the GOP tries to restrict abortion rights, the more electoral punishment they’re likely to face.

Zeeshan Aleem

Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily.

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