Is Ohio’s Issue 1 blowout a fluke or a sign of things to come?

After months of bombastic (and frequently convoluted) messaging from Ohio conservatives, a mid-summer push to head off a November ballot initiative to enshrine abortion access into the state’s constitution failed dramatically, with voters rejecting a Republican-led proposal to significantly raise the threshold for constitutional amendments by a double-digit margin as of Wednesday morning. Opponents of the measure heralded the defeat of the conservative-backed “State Issue 1” proposal as “a major victory for democracy” in the Buckeye state, while anti-abortion groups lamented it as a “sad day for Ohio.”

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Millions of the dollars spent promoting and opposing Issue 1 are estimated to have originated from out of state, making it clear that interest in what happened in Ohio extends far beyond its Midwest borders. As a perennial presidential swing state, Ohio looms large in the American zeitgeist. But are the particulars of the Issue 1 defeat truly applicable elsewhere across the country? As Republicans, Democrats, and special interest groups alike scramble to assess the impact of its failure, one question looms particularly large over the state, and the rest of the nation: Was this a fluke, or a preview of things to come in 2024? 

What are the commentators saying? 

Tuesday’s vote “turns the page on the August election and attention almost immediately will focus on November,” when voters will choose whether to enshrine abortion protections into the state constitution, said. If the abortion measure passes, Ohio Democrats hope the dual victories will “give them rare momentum heading into the 2024 election.”

“Despite the state’s rightward drift,” the ongoing effort by Republicans to further restrict abortion rights “continues to hamstring the party – and legislative pushes such as Issue 1 could shift the focus of elections in key states onto politically problematic ground for the GOP,” CNN agreed. Not only could Issue 1’s defeat portend poorly for the eventual Republican presidential nominee, but it could also be a sign of strength for Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has been identified as one of the most vulnerable incumbents that could tip the Senate into conservative hands. Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, currently one of the top GOP contenders to topple Brown, was also one of the most vocal supporters of Issue 1, going so far as to expressly link it to abortion access by telling attendees at a recent dinner that the effort was “100% about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.” With Issue 1’s defeat, LaRose is now the “face of a losing effort and he will be open to criticism from the already skeptical conservative base,” one Republican campaign strategist told NBC News. 

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Issue 1 backers had hoped the “timing of the vote in August would give them an advantage in a lower turnout election,” Semafor’s Dave Weigel wrote, adding that the move appeared to have backfired.” Not only is it true that Democrats have “done unusually well in special elections this year” in general, but it’s “especially true when abortion is on the ballot.” But while a number of measures designed to threaten abortion access have indeed failed across the country in a worrying trend for conservatives, the particulars of Ohio’s Issue 1 Republican rollout may have doomed it from a tactical standpoint, regardless of national sentiment. “Just months after ending summer elections, Ohio Republicans backtracked & organized a special election,” Bolts magazine editor in chief Daniel Nichanian pointed out, highlighting both the political and fundraising capital expended on the effort. Moreover, he noted, there was “*nothing* on the ballot other than a referendum asking voters to GIVE UP political power!”

What’s next? 

No matter the in-state particulars which may have colored this week’s vote, Democrats and left-leaning groups have been quick to leap upon Issue 1’s defeat. In the words of Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer, it offers “a blueprint” for the coming election year. “Abortion remains the driving issue in American politics and the Republicans’ weakness,” Pfeiffer wrote, pointing out that the “entire GOP is deathly afraid of the issue” to the point where “supporters of the initiative did all they could to make the election about everything other than abortion.” To that end “the salience of the issue is up to Democrats,” who need to “need to talk about abortion, put it in our ads, run on passing a federal law codifying Roe if we expand our Senate majority, and remind every voter that one of the first acts of a Republican president and Congress will be to pass a nationwide abortion ban.”

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Meanwhile, conservative efforts to frame Issue 1 in broader terms “missed the mark, focusing on “anti-woke” culture war messaging that doesn’t seem to be resonating with voters,” HuffPost’s Liz Skalka wrote, highlighting an “ad from Protect Ohio Women, a pro-Issue 1 group [which] attempted to conflate it with the right’s war on ‘wokeness”‘ and transgender Americans.”

“The right can keep playing culture war bingo but none of their numbers add up to a winning line,” agreed New York Times columnist Lydia Polgreen. “Wedge issues only work if they peel off the other side’s less committed voters,” she continued. “The GOP’s wedge issues seem to have the opposite effect.”

Some conservatives, however, seem undaunted by Tuesday’s defeat. “At the end of the day we’ve been laser-focused on November since January,” Mike Gonidakis, Ohio Right to Life president and Issue 1 backer, told “This was just step one in the process.” Gonidakis also described Tuesday’s vote as a “battle worth having.”  

Days before Issue 1 was defeated, Secretary of State LaRose was similarly defiant, telling NBC that “I don’t really give a darn whether it helps me or hurts me.” Acknowledging that the proposal might fail, as it ultimately did, LaRose insisted that to him, “it’s better to fight and lose than to not fight at all when it’s a worthwhile cause.”

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