Did Ohio Republicans actually think their plan was going to work? The idea was, at least, somewhat simple to understand: To head off the possibility that a majority of Ohioans might approve a referendum to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution this November, Buckeye State conservatives decided to rig the rules of the game with a referendum of their own. Issue 1, as it came to be known, would change the ballot initiative rules so that a 60 percent supermajority would be required to carry the day instead of the simple majority Ohioans had hitherto enjoyed. Then they scheduled the Issue 1 vote for August—the silliest of seasons—believing that doing so would lead to low turnout.
It sure seems as if the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs has created the ultimate “be careful what you wish for” situation for conservatives, who’ve watched as voters all across the country beat back plans to further restrict abortion rights at the ballot box. Whenever they’ve been given a chance to do so, voters have rejected the call to limit reproductive freedoms—including in ruby-red redoubts such as Kentucky and Kansas. The Ohio result was a “five-alarm fire for the pro-life movement” for anti-abortion activist Patrick Brown, who tweeted, “The cause of life has to adapt, even if that means unwelcome compromise for the time being. We’ll keep getting run into the ground if we don’t.”
Whether or not that’s true is still up for debate in some quarters. The New York Times’ David Leonhardt noted on Wednesday that Democrats failed “to defeat Republicans by emphasizing their hostility to abortion” in statewide races held in Florida, Ohio, and Texas, calling it “an important caveat” to the issue’s “political potency.” But The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent was not convinced by Leonhardt’s argument, noting that there were numerous electoral successes on the other side of the ledger that were in whole or in part driven by backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, including several 2022 gubernatorial races (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan); Senate races in Arizona and Georgia; and a crucial Wisconsin state Supreme Court election earlier this year.
There are no silver bullets in politics, but to paraphrase Dave Wasserman, I’ve seen enough to contend that the instability of the post-Dobbs world has become a motivating force for voters and a critical piece of electoral ammunition for Democrats. But Ohio Republicans may have unwittingly thrown a healthy dose of accelerant on an already burning fire by launching a broadside against democracy on top of their attack on abortion rights, as The Guardian’s Moira Donegan wrote this week:
And so the fight over abortion rights and Issue 1 in Ohio has become a proxy for the broader fight many Republicans are waging across the states: when voters don’t like the party’s proposed policies—and overwhelmingly, voters do not like abortion bans—then instead of changing their platforms or setting out to persuade the electorate to change their minds, Republicans simply change the rules, so that the voters’ wishes don’t get in the way of their preferred policy outcomes. Don’t want to vote for the Republican party line? Then state Republicans will make sure that your vote doesn’t matter.
In 2022, the Democrats’ decision to put democracy on the ballot and wage a campaign against the illiberal aims of the Republican Party was greeted with puzzlement by many pundits. But as Axios subsequently reported, the exit polls proved that Democrats had gotten it right: “National polling showed abortion and democracy turned out to be big issues with voters. Coverage in the run-up to midterms had focused heavily on pocketbook issues.” That Ohio Republicans, with this knowledge in hand, decided to court backlash in these potent areas with this ballot initiative fight makes me wonder if they ever really thought that they were going to pull off this plot against their own voters.
But it’s not like the GOP have given themselves much of a choice. Having abandoned the work of policymaking in favor of an increasingly weird and rapidly expanding universe of culture-war obsessions, Republicans don’t have all that many political moves at their disposal. The fact that voters are torpedoing the GOP agenda at the ballot box, TNR contributor Alex Thomas reported this week, means that Republicans will try even harder to demolish these avenues of direct democracy.
Democrats have lately endeavored to highlight the success of Bidenomics; there’s no doubt that pocketbook issues will be a critical component of the 2024 campaign. But there’s still a considerable amount of voltage flowing through the third rails of last year’s midterms. As TNR contributor Laleh Ispahani argued this week, Democrats should stay invested in Dobbs and democracy, especially as Republicans continue to wage war on voting rights—and dream of a national abortion ban.
This article was adapted from one that first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.