What abortion ban votes in Virginia and Ohio could mean for 2024 election

Though not on the ballot, Glenn Youngkin hopes to rally Virginia Republicans to victory in state elections as he hopes to pass a 15-week abortion ban  (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Though not on the ballot, Glenn Youngkin hopes to rally Virginia Republicans to victory in state elections as he hopes to pass a 15-week abortion ban (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Voters are headed to the polls in two states where the “Dobbs Effect” will face its latest test.

A year after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ended federal protections for abortion in Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the issue of abortion is back on the ballot in two battleground states that will each play a major role in next year’s presidential election.

In Ohio, voters will consider an amendment to the state constitution enshrining “a fundamental right to reproductive freedom” as a right of all Ohioans, allowing for some limits on the practice of abortion but generally protecting it from an all-out ban or severe restrictions.

And in Virginia, the state’s Republican governor is rallying his party around a 15-week abortion ban, and encouraging a perception of the state House of Delegates and Senate as either a green light or a roadblock ahead of the implementation of that legislation. Republicans took the governor’s mansion and House of Delegates in 2021, leaving Democrats in control of just one corner of government.

All eyes are on these two states in the political world for obvious reasons: the pair of states are two major battlegrounds for presidential elections, though Ohio has trended increasingly red in recent cycles. The elections also represent the first real test of the American electorate in terms of abortion views since last year’s midterm congressional elections, when Republicans saw their “red wave” evaporate into a defeat in the Senate and a razor-thin unruly House majority.

While some in the beltway media sphere proclaimed that backlash from the Supreme Court’s spring decision tossing Roe v Wade’s precedent — the “Dobbs Effect” – would subside before the 2022 midterms, the clear reality was that voters who support abortion rights delivered major victories for both Democrats and the pro-choice movement specifically last year. The victories occurred in purple and red states as well as blue Democratic strongholds, signalling that the momentum was headed in the opposite direction of the hardline pro-life movement.

This year, Republicans are hoping that the trend will reverse itself. In Ohio, where municipal races are the only ones on the ballot this year, the result will be a clear referendum on the issue, and Question 1 will be the largest factor drawing voters to the polls. Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, who enjoys reasonably positive approval ratings, is not on the ballot either; and legislative priorities may take greater importance over the personalities of lesser-known candidates for state offices at the polls in the Old Dominion state.

The question of what the “Dobbs Effect” will look like in Virginia is a particularly interesting one. Mr Youngkin, cognisant of the fact that Democrats and abortion rights maintain serious support bases in the state, has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars via his Spirit of Virginia PAC into sculpting the conversation around his proposed ban — which he insists should not be referred to as such. Ads are demanding that reporters refer to the proposal as a “reasonable limit” on abortion, noting exceptions for rape, incest and medical emergencies. It’s essentially an admission from Mr Youngkin and the state GOP that a “ban” is politically unpopular and would be rejected by voters in a purple state. At the same time, he has won praise from major anti-abortion groups, which suggests that they see his strategy as the path forward for their movement in such areas.

A spokesman for Mr Youngkin’s PAC told The Washington Post last week that the reason Republicans were shellacked so handily in areas where abortion was on the ballot in 2022 came down to a lack of aggression from the GOP in response to criticism on the issue.

“There was no Republican response, none, and the results were tough in the ’22 midterms,” Zack Roday told the Post. “Republicans didn’t talk about where they were. They didn’t swat back the misstatements, the sometimes outright lies.”

That theory will be put to the test on Tuesday. If Mr Youngkin and the Virginia GOP eke out a victory, it could mean a major watershed moment for the anti-abortion movement — a meaningful election result it can point to when challenged on the popularity of its agenda. Should they lose ground in the state’s legislative branch, it will instead reinforce a different idea, one driven home in 2022: That the left controls the momentum on this issue; the latest front to turn against conservatives in the culture war.