The failure of a GOP-backed ballot measure in Ohio has given Democrats new hope as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) faces a competitive Senate race next year.
Voters in the Buckeye State on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected Issue 1, a ballot measure pushed by Republican leaders in the state that would have made it harder to enshrine abortion rights in its constitution.
The victory for Democrats and reproductive rights advocates is the latest sign that their messaging on abortion is resonating with voters, even in red states like Ohio. But they acknowledge the challenges Brown faces heading into one of the most closely watched races next year.
“Every election is a battle in this state. We know that. So we will not take our focus off the fights as they come,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairwoman Liz Walters during a press conference Wednesday. “But we do see valuable lessons coming out of this fight, whether that is cultivating what is the map of the future … for Ohio Democrats, which is a long-term part of our work, but more importantly, how we mobilize grassroots activists across the state for the fight in November.”
Walters said the referendums like Issue 1 and the abortion rights measure help clarify to voters what candidates and parties’ positions are on the issues. She added that they will specifically make the stances of Brown’s reelection campaign clear to voters.
Issue 1 would have raised the threshold for the passage of future constitutional amendments to 60 percent from the current simple majority. Additionally, it would have added restrictions that make getting a measure on the ballot more difficult. That would have added an extra barrier to the abortion rights amendment set to be voted on in November.
But voters comfortably rejected the measure, with about 57 percent voting against it as of Wednesday afternoon.
Brown’s campaign was already touting the win in a fundraising email Wednesday.
“We were victorious last night in defeating special interests and keeping power where it belongs — in the hands of voters,” the email read.
Republicans say they are not as convinced abortion will play a definitive role in the Senate race next year, particularly if voters move to enshrine abortion rights into the state’s constitution this November.
“The question will be decided already,” one Ohio-based Republican strategist told The Hill. “I wouldn’t smoke too many cigars or do too many victory laps.”
Polling has shown the abortion measure appears to be popular with a majority of Ohio voters. A poll conducted late last month showed 58 percent of likely voters said they support the measure, while only 32 percent said they oppose it.
Democrats expressed optimism that the defeat of Issue 1 underscores the importance for voters of the abortion measure and will fuel momentum to get it passed.
The party was successful in tying their GOP opponents to the issue last year across the country, resulting in Republicans underperforming in what was supposed to be a successful midterm election for them. However, Ohio’s Senate race was one of the exceptions.
“In ’22 Tim Ryan talked about it and J.D. Vance talked about it. J.D. Vance won by 6 points. And this is a presidential year, so turnout will be high,” the Ohio-based Republican strategist noted.
Brown’s seat will be one of the top GOP targets as Republicans try to win back a majority in the Senate. Brown is one of three incumbent Democrats running for reelection in states that voted for former President Trump twice.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, one of the candidates running for the GOP nomination for Brown’s seat, tied himself closely to the issue as one of the most vocal advocates for the measure.
Matt Caffrey, the national organizing director at Swing Left, a progressive organization that works to elect Democrats to Congress, said LaRose was the “poster child” for Issue 1 and he could be harmed by his advocacy for the issue in a general election.
“At the end of the day, I think this whole episode has left a bad taste in people’s mouths. And I do think he’s going to regret the role he played in this fight,” he said.
LaRose largely argued the measure was intended to keep special interests and out-of-state actors from influencing the Ohio constitution, but he faced controversy over comments he made earlier this year that this was “100 percent” about stopping the abortion amendment.
“I certainly think that’s a help for us, to have Frank LaRose bring this unpopular, anti-democratic constitutional amendment in favor of this unpopular abortion ban,” Caffrey added.
A six-week abortion ban went into effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. The ban was temporarily paused a few months later while legal battles play out.
The three GOP Senate contenders — LaRose, business entrepreneur Bernie Moreno and state Sen. Matt Dolan (R) — have expressed support for the measure. LaRose even called on Moreno and Dolan to each donate $1 million to support Issue 1.
Jeff Rusnak, an Ohio-based strategist who opposed Issue 1 and supports the abortion measure, said “a lot of opportunity” exists for Brown to pick up votes in his reelection bid.
He said he compared Brown’s performance in 2018 with Trump’s in the state in 2020 and the results from Tuesday’s vote. He said in some cases the “no” votes performed multiple points better than Brown did in certain areas of the state in 2018.
“I think this can only help him. I think the other thing that we have is that we have a newly energized and focused electorate and set of volunteers who have come out and said that this issue is a priority for them,” Rusnak said.
He added that he expects LaRose to “pay a steep price” for his idea for the amendment, which he called a “massive failure.”
Republicans, on the other hand, reject the notion that August’s vote will end up haunting any of the candidates next year.
“By the time the Republican primary happens next March, very few people will be thinking about the August election,” said Mark Weaver, an Ohio-based GOP strategist. “Many more people will be thinking about the November 2023 election, about the abortion question.”
Regardless of whether the abortion ballot measure is approved, Republicans say they will not take Brown as an opponent for granted.
“Republicans would be foolhardy not to take Sherrod Brown as the most serious of challenges because he has a track record to prove it,” the Ohio-based GOP strategist said.
“They’re going to have to nominate the best person and they’re going to have to run a very good campaign to defeat Sherrod Brown.”