AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
A rather low-profile special election in Ohio on Tuesday that nonetheless had major implications for the national abortion debate ended in objective disaster for Ohio Republicans and another state-level defeat for the pro-life movement. But the real tragedy for conservatives will be if they don’t learn several important lessons from this otherwise discouraging outcome.
By a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, voters in Ohio overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative known as Issue 1 that would have raised the threshold to pass an amendment to the state constitution from 50 percent to 60 percent.
In Ohio, as in many other states, the bar to amend the state constitution is remarkably low compared to that required to amend the U.S. Constitution. In order to place an amendment on the statewide ballot, petitioners must gather signatures from 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties, with the total number of signatures being equal to at least 10 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. From there, a simple majority vote makes the amendment the law of the land.
Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly called the special election earlier this year after a well-funded group of pro-abortion organizations succeeded in getting an amendment on the ballot this November that protects a virtually unlimited right to abortion in the state. If Issue 1 had passed, the abortion amendment would have needed 60 percent of the vote to become law.
Currently, abortion is legal in Ohio up through the point of fetal viability, generally about 22 weeks.
Why Did Issue 1 Fail?
While there are always a multitude of factors that decide an election outcome, two main problems with Issue 1 stand out as potential reasons for its failure: structural flaws in the ballot initiative itself, and poor messaging strategy on the part of its Republican proponents.
Convincing voters to make a change to a seemingly less democratic process was always going to be a difficult task. Moreover, GOP leaders in the state initially denied that Issue 1 had anything to do with abortion – a line even the most credulous voter could see right through.
This gave off the unavoidable impression (one encouraged by well-funded liberal groups) that Ohio Republicans were trying to unfairly change the rules at the last minute in order to thwart the democratic will of the people. That notion undoubtedly motivated “No” votes from large numbers of Democrat and Independent voters and likely some Republicans as well who saw the question as more a matter of preserving the principle of “majority rules” rather than a pro-life issue.
To be sure, there is a valid and compelling argument to be made about why writing and amending state constitutions via a simple majority vote is a bad idea. For starters, it allows deep-pocketed special interests to mobilize a relatively small number of voters in low-turnout elections and effectively bypass the legislative process to enact laws that are often far out of sync with where the state is politically – which is exactly what is happening in Ohio right now.
But that rather complex argument is far more difficult to make in a way that breaks through to the general public than the comparably simple arguments the left was able to advance.
This leads to the next problem for Republicans, which is that they failed to message to voters on what Issue 1 was actually about. While the left hammered home that a “No” vote was a vote for abortion rights and “protecting democracy,” the right was far more vague in what a “Yes” vote meant.
Take, for instance, a tweet from the Ohio Republican Party on Election Day which declared that a “Yes” vote on Issue 1 would “protect Ohio values, preserve the people’s power, defend Ohio’s constitution.” While the mention of “Ohio values” was clearly a nod to the implications for the abortion issue, that type of veiled reference is hardly enough to inspire pro-life voters to head to the polls. And on the surface, raising the threshold required to pass an amendment from 50 percent to 60 percent seems like the opposite of “preserving the people’s power.”
Another billboard that showed up throughout Ohio in the weeks leading up to Election Day proclaimed that a “Yes” vote was “pro-gun, pro-parents rights, and pro-small business.” Again, the display contained plenty of conservative buzzwords, but very little connection to the actual substance of Issue 1.
Across the board, there was no consistent explanation for why a “Yes” vote aligned with conservative values in a state that has become increasingly red in recent cycles.
Trying to dance around the abortion issue was also clearly a mistake, as the net result was pro-abortion voters knew exactly why they should vote against Issue 1, but pro-life voters were not motivated to turn out to vote in favor of it. Republicans were likely understandably weary of leaning too hard into the abortion angle after defeats in other states like Kansas and Michigan, but as a result they ended up completely lacking a unifying message.
As is so often the case in politics, the side that told a simple story and had more conviction won.
While the defeat of Issue 1 was undoubtedly a major setback for the pro-life movement, the fight is not over yet. Conservatives in the state can still mobilize to vote down the actual abortion amendment on November 7.
Step one in that effort will be developing a clearer and more concise messaging strategy on why the amendment is so dangerous and extreme.
Specifically, opponents of the amendment should expose how dishonest the text of the amendment is. While the amendment first proclaims, “abortion may be prohibited after fetal viability” – a provision that would seemingly leave the current law untouched – it then reads, “in no case may such an abortion be prohibited if in the professional judgement of the pregnant patient’s treating physician it is necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health.”
Again, this sounds reasonable. But the extraordinarily broad language of “life or health” leaves the door open for radical pro-abortion doctors to perform elective abortions at any stage of pregnancy by simply claiming that killing the baby is necessary to protect the mother’s mental health – something which is disturbingly common in other states that already allow late-term abortions.
As the Editorial Board for National Review has explained, the proposed abortion amendment would also effectively invalidate Ohio’s Hyde Amendment, forcing taxpayers to fund abortions.
These are important arguments for conservatives throughout the country to grapple with because many similar battles are on the horizon. While the Dobbs decision was the greatest victory in a generation for pro-lifers, it also unleashed a wave of pro-abortion radicalism from which no state, no matter how conservative, is immune.
The left has realized that by pouring money into statewide ballot initiatives and using intentionally misleading language that seems on the surface to be quite moderate, they can in many cases make abortion laws even more extreme than they were before Dobbs. Ohio is case in point of this strategy and how effective it can be in blue and red states alike.
The fact that Republicans were afraid to lean into the abortion aspect of the Issue 1 debate is also another reminder that, as much as Dobbs was the triumphant conclusion of one battle, it was the beginning of a perhaps even more difficult challenge – creating a culture of life.
For 50 years, legal precedent, the education system, and the liberalization of every major American institution have masked the ugly reality of abortion and successfully framed it as an issue of women’s bodily autonomy rather than protecting innocent human life. Conservatives should recognize this, while at the same time understanding that apologizing or hiding from what they believe in is no way to change hearts and minds.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @ShaneHarris513.