Democrats in Ohio say they’ll need a new recipe for a second huge abortion rights win

John Lateulere, a moderate Republican in Geauga County, voted against August’s initiative because he thought it gave outsized power to the secretary of state and smaller counties.

“We took Ohio from a state that was truly very democratic and proposed to put it in a state that is very autocratic,” he said of the August initiative, later adding that he feels conflicted over whether to vote for the amendment in November. 

Some Republicans are confident that GOP voters who voted against the August initiative will “come home” in November.

“They’re not all of a sudden saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to get rid of my values, my faith, my pro-life position,’” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life.

Organizers noted that in order to win in November, they needed to continue to garner votes from across the political spectrum. Ohioans needed to vote on the “initiative language rather than simply their party affiliation,” said Dr. David Hackney, one of the five members of the committee representing petitioners in the initial amendment petition. 

“Swimming upstream”

Ohio Democrats aren’t under the impression that the state is suddenly flipping blue in 2024, though they are optimistic that the state will be competitive — especially when it comes to Sen. Sherrod Brown’s re-election bid.

Sen. Sherrod BrownSen. Sherrod Brown listens during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing at the Capitol, in 2022.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

“When we have the resources and investments we need, we’re able to win close races, and when we don’t, we aren’t,” said Matt Keyes, a spokesperson for the Ohio Democratic Party. “It once again shows the value in investing in Ohio and taking Ohio seriously as a battleground state.”

Brown, a longtime fixture in Ohio politics, first sealed his spot in the Senate seat by defeating then-Republican incumbent and now-Gov. Mike DeWine in 2006. Brown also spent more than a decade in the House after serving in state politics.

One of his 2024 competitors is Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who has been vocal in his opposition to the abortion protection amendment. LaRose also leads the state ballot board that is facing a lawsuit over changing November’s ballot language by inserting the term “unborn child.”

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRoseOhio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks in Moraine, Ohio, in 2022.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

In the aftermath of the November election, Brown “will be inheriting a major league infrastructure that’s been in place for a year,” Pepper said. 

But Democrats face a branding issue in Ohio, explained former Congressman Tim Ryan, who lost his race for a 2022 Senate seat to conservative Trump-ally JD Vance.

Ryan said the perception in Ohio is that Democrats want to focus on divisive social issues, rather than issues like the economy. The challenge for Democrats in Ohio is communicating that they are “not a Washington, D.C. Democrat, you’re an Ohio Democrat, like a Sherrod Brown,” he explained.

“Until there’s like a complete overhaul of the Democratic brand nationally in places like Ohio, you’re, you’re swimming upstream,” he said. To fix the branding issue, Ryan says Democrats should talk about issues — including abortion — in terms of freedom.

On the national scale, the Biden campaign is working to seize on Republicans’ abortion stances in the lead-up to the presidential election. A campaign email to surrogates after the first Republican debate laid out messaging points, including that “the MAGA candidates spent two hours shouting over each other on … who has the best plan to ban abortion nationwide.”

Within the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris is taking a leading public role in touting the administration’s views on reproductive rights. Harris is “an obvious spokesperson,” but “the president has been really quite clear about where he is” on wanting to restore Roe protections through federal legislation, said Jennifer Klein, director of the White House Gender Policy Council.

But with a razor-thin Senate majority, a Republican-controlled House and a hyperpolarized Hill, the White House faces an uphill battle. 

“We need the right people in Congress to be able to work with,” Klein said.

Yet anti-abortion ballot initiatives aren’t resonating in deep-red states like Kansas and Kentucky. In August 2022, Kansas voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have removed language enshrining abortion access. In November 2022, Kentucky voters struck down a proposal that would have added language to the state constitution explicitly saying it does not protect the right to abortion. 

“After all the dust settles, everyone will probably be going through the Ohio process of the prior year with a fine tooth comb, as we then turn towards a larger map in ‘24,” Hackney said. 

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