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Vulnerable Ohio Democrats hope to ride abortion referendum to victory in 2024

Two other members the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put on its list of most vulnerable “frontline” incumbents — Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Emilia Sykes — have gone door-knocking for the initiative, while Sen. Sherrod Brown has led phone banking efforts and raises the issue at most campaign stops as he pursues reelection in the conservative-leaning state.

The results of the Nov. 7 referendum and the margin of victory will shape strategy and messaging next year in Ohio, in several other battleground states likely to put abortion on their ballots and in Democratic campaigns to hold the White House and win control of Congress. The campaign will also test whether vulnerable Democrats can turn public support for abortion rights into campaign victories — even if the elections are a year apart.

Turnout has been robust so far. As of Oct. 24, more than 300,000 early ballots have been cast, and the state is on track to far exceed turnout from the previous off-year election in 2021.

“Democratic candidates are being told that support for abortion is the magic bullet — the special weapon that’s going to help them win,” Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, told anti-abortion activists on a webcast Tuesday night. “So stopping this measure in Ohio is going to bring those efforts not definitely to a halt, but it’s going to at least make everybody stop and think that maybe this isn’t quite the issue that they thought it was.”

Local Republicans, who have watched Ohio tip red in recent cycles, say they’re confident they can defeat the abortion-rights amendment this year and redirect the 2024 conversation to other issues more favorable to the GOP — such as President Joe Biden’s fitness for office, the economy and crime.

With less than three weeks before Election Day and early voting underway, Gov. Mike DeWine, Senate hopeful and current Secretary of State Frank LaRose and other Ohio Republican leaders are pouring political capital into the fight — the last test before 2024 of whether abortion will continue to hobble the GOP.

Turnout has been robust so far. As of Oct. 24, more than 300,000 early ballots have been cast, and the state is on track to far exceed turnout from the previous off-year election in 2021.

As abortion opponents acknowledge they’re lagging in fundraising, ad spending and polling, some on the right dismiss the idea that the Ohio referendum will foretell the outcome of competitive races in 2024.

“I don’t think that this is going to be the predictor that the left thinks it will be,” said Ohio Republican Party Chair Alex Triantafilou. “[2024] will be a referendum on Joe Biden, as these presidential elections always are.”

Ohio was once a bellwether swing state, but Republicans have won nearly every statewide office for the past decade and former President Donald Trump carried the state twice, and by 9 points in 2020. State and national progressive groups see the upcoming referendum as an opportunity to turn that tide, arguing that a win could convince both Ohio voters and national groups that the state isn’t a lost cause for Democrats.

“A lot of the professional political class is looking at Ohio and saying: ‘It’s not really winnable anymore,’” lamented Matt Caffrey, the Ohio-based organizing director for the group Swing Left. “And, sure, we’ve been beaten down by some tough losses. But this referendum is a critical step, because it demonstrates to people across the country that this is a place worth fighting for, not some deep red hellhole.”

Aware of these dynamics, several left-leaning advocacy groups and the Ohio Democratic Party initially pushed for the abortion-rights measure to go on the 2024 ballot, hoping it would boost voter turnout and donations. But they ultimately sided with medical groups that insisted on moving forward this year out of fear that the state’s six-week, near-total ban, now enjoined by courts, could be reinstated before voters had a chance to weigh in.

Ohio Democratic Party Chair Elizabeth Walters acknowledged that there would have been advantages “both tactically and politically” to putting the measure on the 2024 ballot, but she and other leaders were convinced that “Ohio women shouldn’t have to wait to have access to their fundamental constitutional rights to their reproductive health care freedom for when it’s politically convenient.”

The party has thrown its weight behind the referendum, gathering a large portion of the signatures needed to get it on the ballot and funding get-out-the-vote efforts, and Walters said she now sees several benefits to holding the referendum in an off-year.

“It’s not that we can’t walk and chew gum, but the more crowded the ballot gets, and the more spending you have from various candidates and other ballot initiatives, the harder it can be to kind of break through with your message,” she said.

Even just a few years ago, many red and purple state Democrats would not have trumpeted support for abortion rights. But the wave of anger on the left unleashed after the fall of Roe v. Wade and the success of abortion rights ballot initiatives at winning over independent and moderate Republican voters across the Midwest, Great Plains and Appalachia last year had an emboldening effect.

Kaptur — the longest-serving woman in the House — fretted in 2017 that Democrats’ focus on abortion rights risked alienating conservative constituents. But this year, she led multiple door-to-door canvasses across northwest Ohio to defeat August’s referendum that would have made it harder to protect abortion rights. She also intends to go door-knocking with local Democratic clubs in the final days before the election in support of this November’s referendum to protect those rights in the state Constitution.

Sykes, who won a close race in 2022 to represent former Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan’s Akron district, made several videos for the Ohio Democratic Party in support of Issue 1, canvassed and phone banked, and will appear at Planned Parenthood rally for the measure the last weekend before Election Day.

“I used to be one of the frustrated Democrats hoping to hear more from our candidates about why we should have complete control of our own bodies,” Sykes said in an interview. “But in the last few years I have been very encouraged by the seismic shift in the willingness of Democrats to talk about access to reproductive rights.”

Landsman, a House freshman who flipped his southwestern Ohio district last fall, is partnering with the group Swing Left on canvassing. He told POLITICO that he’s had success connecting with more conservative constituents by talking about abortion rights as important to the state’s economy as well as individual families — an echo of arguments Michigan Democrats successfully deployed in their referendum fight last year.

“It’s about protecting the growth that we’re seeing in Ohio,” he said, warning that if the measure doesn’t pass, “we’re going see people start to leave and or just not come here — whether those are individuals or businesses — because people just don’t want to raise a family in a state where they don’t have all their freedoms, and businesses don’t want to invest in a state where they can’t attract the talent they need.”

Brown, whose race could decide if Democrats hold their Senate majority, said in an interview, that doing so will help rather than hurt his reelection bid.

“I’ve always stood up for women’s reproductive health, I’ve always stood for human rights, and I’ve always stood for the dignity of work and that’s why, frankly, not to sound arrogant, I’ve done well in a state where not many Democrats are winning,” he said.

Still, neither Brown nor any other Democratic officials have been as visible in supporting the abortion rights measure as Ohio Republicans have been in opposing it.

DeWine and Ohio first lady Fran DeWine cut a TV ad for Protect Women Ohio, the leading group opposing Issue 1, saying that the measure “goes too far” and is “just not right for Ohio.”

LaRose launched his Senate campaign just before spearheading an August special election to raise the threshold for ballot initiatives, a failed gambit he acknowledged was “100 percent” aimed at stymying the abortion rights referendum. LaRose and scores of other GOP officials — including the lieutenant governor and several state legislators — also spoke at a massive anti-abortion rally in October on the steps of the state Capitol in Columbus.

The two other major Republican candidates vying to run against Brown next year, businessperson Bernie Moreno and state Sen. Matt Dolan have also rallied against Issue 1, calling it “extreme” and “radical.”

Moreno and Dolan did not respond to requests for interviews. The leading GOP candidates vying to challenge Reps. Kaptur, Landsman and Sykes also did not respond.

GOP messaging against the amendment is focused on the argument that its passage would eliminate laws requiring parental consent for minors seeking an abortion. Though there is nothing in the text of the ballot measure related to that, they argue its language guaranteeing abortion rights for “individuals” rather than “adults” would have that effect. Democrats and outside groups, including the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, dispute this claim.

“My school needs a permission slip to give one of my daughters an aspirin. We don’t allow children under 18 to get a tattoo without parental involvement,” LaRose said in an interview. “So to imagine a young girl in a crisis in her life, being sort of hustled off by some uncaring bureaucrats to some abortion clinic without having her parents around her is really startling for a lot of us.”

Democrats in many states — even those that support abortion rights — are divided on parental consent laws. But an October poll conducted by Baldwin Wallace University suggests LaRose’s argument may not be resonating with its intended audience.

While 58 percent of all respondents said they favor passage of the amendment, support among parents was 65 percent.

The Ohio Democratic Party’s Walters said she’s confident this anti-abortion advocacy will backfire on GOP candidates next year.

“This is how voters are getting to know them — by seeing them actively trying to take away their freedoms and their democratic process in our state. It’s not a great introduction,” she said. “They’re doing a lot of legwork for us, drawing a contrast of who they are and what they stand for.”

On Tuesday night’s webcast, state and national anti-abortion leaders pleaded with their supporters to donate, volunteer, fast and pray over the next two weeks for the defeat of Issue 1, warning that yet another loss for their side would embolden Democrats to keep using ballot measures to roll back abortion bans in red and purple states.

“This is not just Ohio’s struggle,” stressed David Bereit, an anti-abortion activist who founded the group 40 Days for Life. “For all of us, this is a national tipping point moment. The outcome here can and will dictate the trajectory for the entire United States, whether it’s to bolster or to thwart the abortion agenda from coast to coast.”


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