In what may be a preview of the 2024 general election, Democrats on Tuesday surged to surprising victories in a number of states across the United States, in large part by highlighting their resistance to Republican efforts to pass strict abortion bans.
More than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a constitutional right to receive abortion care, experts say the issue is likely to remain salient with voters into next year. This offers some hope to the many Democrats publicly fretting about their chances in 2024.
The party’s leader, President Joe Biden, is suffering from low approval ratings as well as a widespread perception that his age — he would be 82 at the beginning of a second term — may make him less effective in office.
Republicans are not helped by the fact that they do not speak with one voice on the subject. A presidential primary debate on Wednesday featured one candidate calling for a federal law limiting abortion, while another argued that the party should recognize that passing such a proposal is a practical impossibility.
In June 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that Roe v. Wade, a nearly 50-year-old decision that guaranteed women access to abortion in all 50 states, was wrongly decided, and declared that the legality of abortion should be decided at the state level.
That case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, set off a flurry of legislative activity across the country, as states began considering new laws on abortion, or reviving old laws that had been rendered moot by the Roe decision in 1973. In many states where Republicans control the legislature, strict abortion bans were quickly put into place.
As a result, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, 58% of women in the U.S. between the ages of 13 and 44 now live in states with laws that are “hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights.”
Evidence of a backlash began to appear quickly. Prior to the Dobbs decision, Democrats had been expected to fare poorly in the 2022 congressional elections. However, that November, a wave of anger at the new abortion restrictions helped limit Republican gains.
Hoping they would sweep to a large majority in the House of Representatives, the Republicans instead eked out only a tiny one. In the Senate, Democrats managed to retain control — an outcome that was far from guaranteed just a few months earlier.
In the following months, Democrats scored a series of unexpected victories in special elections and abortion-related ballot referendums across the country, foreshadowing the results of Tuesday’s off-year elections in multiple states.
In Ohio, a Republican-run state legislature had passed a strict ban on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy — before many women even know they are pregnant. On Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly approved adding the right to an abortion to the state’s constitution.
In Virginia, popular Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned hard for his party’s candidates for the state’s General Assembly, promising that if voters gave the Republicans full control of the state government, he would institute a 15-week limit on the right to an abortion.
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Going into the election, Democrats had a majority in the state Senate, while Republicans held a majority in the House of Delegates. In an apparent rebuke to Youngkin, voters gave Democrats control of both houses of the legislature.
In Kentucky, typically a Republican stronghold, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear won reelection handily, despite a concerted effort by Republican political action groups to unseat him. His campaign credited the victory, in part, to the distinction he drew between himself and his opponent, who favors strict curbs on abortion.
New challenge for Republicans
Tuesday’s election results highlight a core challenge facing Republican candidates in a post-Dobbs world, said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia.
“The Republican base, the people that vote and choose candidates, is very pro-life,” Mayer told VOA. “So, in order to win the nomination for governor or for state legislature or for national Senate, often Republicans have to be incredibly pro-life.”
Supporters and opponents of abortion rights have long used the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” to describe their competing positions.
In the past, with Roe v. Wade guaranteeing the right to an abortion, a Republican candidates could be as vocally anti-abortion as they liked. They did not risk losing the votes of Republicans who support abortion access, because the procedure was understood to be protected. Now, however, voters have to take candidates’ anti-abortion-rights stances more seriously.
“Once the Supreme Court opened up the gates to banning abortion, Republicans needed to come up with smart messaging, and they haven't figured it out yet,” Mayer said.
Sarah Parshall Perry, a senior legal fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, agreed.
“I’m hoping this will be a wake-up call,” Perry told VOA. “The GOP and pro-lifers have got to get their messaging in order.”
She said the Republicans need to do a better job dissecting the language in ballot measures, such as the one that recently passed in Ohio, and pointing out their implications. For instance, she said, the Ohio referendum results could eliminate requirements that a minor’s parents receive notification if their child seeks an abortion.
“There needs to be a little bit of cohesion going forward, because we know we're going to see this in other states,” Perry said. “In fact, Arizona is getting ready to put a ballot initiative on their election forms for next year. They're now having discussions in Florida and in Missouri — deep-red states — because the Democratic abortion lobby is energized after some of its recent wins.”
Democratic activists, for their part, seem confident that Republicans will continue to struggle to reframe the abortion issue ahead of the 2024 election.
“The reason why we can take this into the national 2024 election is because the everyday American has been so impacted by the Dobbs decision,” said Sabrina Talukder, director of the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
“Particularly in the maternal mortality crisis that we're facing in the country, it's not a hard point to drive home,” Talukder told VOA. “Abortion wins. The American people want access to abortion. They want to codify it in their state statutes, and they want elected officials who believe in abortion access, who believe in abortion care as health care.”
In a debate Wednesday among five of the Republicans vying for the party’s presidential nomination next year, the challenge in coming to a shared Republican position on abortion was on full display.
“I’m 100% pro-life,” said Senator Tim Scott. “I would certainly, as president of the United States, have a 15-week national limit.”
“I think you have to be honest with the American people,” said former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. “When it comes to the federal law, which is what is being debated here, be honest. It’s going to take 60 Senate votes, a majority of the House and a president to sign it.
“We haven’t had 60 Senate votes in over a hundred years. … So, no Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president can ban these state laws.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis conceded that the GOP is losing its own voters on issues like the ballot measure passed in Ohio on Tuesday, saying, “A lot of the people who are voting for the referenda are Republicans who would vote for a Republican candidate.”
In his own state, DeSantis signed a strict abortion law banning most instances of the procedure after six weeks.
Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, was not present at the debate. His policy on abortion has shifted over the years, but it was his nomination, during his first term, of three Supreme Court justices known to favor overturning Roe that led to the Dobbs decision.