Despite Wisconsin Supreme Court election loss, Republicans in other states push for new abortion restrictions

Janet Protasiewicz won comfortably in a state where major races are usually nail-biters.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz and Florida Gov. Ron Desantis.
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Democrats scored a major victory in Wisconsin on Tuesday, winning a seat on the state Supreme Court in the latest example of how the issue of abortion is still playing a massive role in swing races.

Liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz was explicit about her support for abortion access in her campaign against conservative Dan Kelly, repeatedly referencing it in television ads. In a state where most of the recent major contests have been within a point or two, Protasiewicz ended up winning the pricey race by 11%. Her victory gave Democrats a majority on the state’s Supreme Court and means she will likely preside over a case on Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban that is expected to reach the court later this year.

Protasiewicz’s win was just the latest in a string of abortion-related electoral defeats for Republicans in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last June to overturn Roe v. Wade. Signs of trouble for Republicans were there immediately. In Kansas, a state that former President Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2020, voters soundly rejected an August referendum that would have weakened abortion protections. Later that month, a Democratic candidate running on abortion rights won a special House election in a New York swing district.

A Republican wave predicted by many in the November midterms was blunted by the focus on abortion that saw ballot measures succeeding even in some traditionally conservative states. It was a major issue in Michigan, where a ballot measure not only helped power Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to an easy reelection but also gave her party control of the state Legislature for the first time in decades. It was a key issue in Pennsylvania, where Democrats flipped a Senate seat and held onto the governor’s mansion by focusing on the issue. The victories continued into 2023, with Democrats flipping a Virginia state Senate seat in a special election that was focused on Republican attempts to pass a stricter ban.

Protasiewicz celebrates alongside Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley at her election night watch party.
Protasiewicz celebrates alongside Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley at her election night watch party in Milwaukee on Tuesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

“The message from voters has been clear: Americans want the freedom to make reproductive health care decisions without government interference,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday in reference to the Wisconsin results, also mentioning the ballot initiative wins and the Virginia special election.

This trend has not stopped Republicans across the country from continuing their campaign to further restrict access to abortion. That includes the candidate seen by many in the party as their main alternative to a Trump nomination.

On Monday, the Florida Senate approved a bill, S.B. 300, to ban abortion after six weeks, a point at which many women don’t even know they’re pregnant. The proposal does make exceptions to save the pregnant woman’s life and extends to up to 15 weeks for victims of rape, incest or human trafficking, but overriding a six-week limit is causing some discomfort among Republicans.

The Florida House is expected to take up the measure in a vote next week before it heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s desk. He has shown support for the bill as he prepares to formally launch his presidential bid. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released last month on DeSantis’s policy proposals found that just 34% of Americans favored banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, while 50% opposed doing so.

The move from DeSantis ahead of an expected national run is a tactical decision being questioned by at least one prominent Sunshine State Republican.

“That’s a tough issue for people. I mean, you have to be really compassionate about what people are going through. I think where most people are is [for] reasonable restrictions. And probably most people are [for] about 15 weeks with all the exceptions ... for rape and incest and the life of the mother,” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said during a March 10 Noticias Telemundo interview. “That’s where the population is, and ... our state legislation ought to represent that.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters before signing a 15-week abortion ban into law in April 2022. (John Raoux/AP)

The legislation would also ban the prescription of abortion medication via telemedicine, requiring it to be dispensed in-person. If that aspect of the bill were to pass, it would effectively ban abortion pills from being shipped through the mail.

In Nebraska, state GOP Sen. Merv Riepe was a co-sponsor of Legislative Bill 626 that would ban abortion if a heartbeat can be detected. Nebraska law currently bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, but fetal heartbeats are often heard in the 6th week of pregnancy.

In a surprise move on March 15, Riepe filed an amendment to the bill that extended the cut-off point for abortions to 12 weeks of pregnancy, saying that he was bothered by the idea that the bill could be a “total ban” on abortion. “No group came to me, asking me to do this,” Riepe told the Flatwater Free Press, “This is of my own beliefs, my own commitments.”

In North Carolina, state House Majority Deputy Whip Keith Kidwell, a Republican, filed House Bill 533 on March 29. It would ban abortions from the moment of conception, with an exception given to protect the life of the mother.

As of Wednesday, the passage of the proposal looked assured after state House member Tricia Cotham announced that she had switched parties from Democrat to Republican, citing “bullying” from Democrats. State House Republicans now have a majority of 72 seats, giving them the ability to override any veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in the purple state.

On Wednesday, Idaho’s Republican Gov. Brad Little signed a first-of-its-kind “abortion trafficking” bill into law that makes it illegal for an adult to help a minor get an abortion across state lines without parental consent. There is currently a near-total ban on abortion in the state.

A sign taped to a hanger hangs near the Idaho Capitol in Boise after protests against the state's new abortion laws, which effectively banned the procedure. (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman via ZUMA Press Wire)
A sign taped to a hanger hangs near the Idaho Capitol in Boise after protests against the state's new abortion laws, which effectively banned the procedure. (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman via ZUMA Press Wire)

In Oklahoma, which was the first state to outlaw abortion last year, polling shows that residents don’t want a total ban on the procedure. Several bills have been introduced this year that would undo some of the state’s strict anti-abortion laws. Even one of the state’s most vocal anti-abortion advocates, Tony Lauinger, who is the chair of Oklahomans for Life, warned in a letter to state lawmakers that more abortion exceptions should be enacted into law and that abortion rights advocates could end up legalizing the procedure through petitions.

The problem for Republicans is that the strict bans are popular with their base, so abandoning them could cost politicians in primaries. Coming out in favor of them, however, could continue to prove a liability in general elections. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade found that just 33% of Americans agreed with the court’s ruling.

Protasiewicz’s win in Wisconsin was a warning sign in some GOP circles, however. The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board — which cheered the overturning of Roe last summer — wrote Wednesday that the issue of abortion was still “politically potent.”

“Republicans had better get their abortion position straight, and more in line with where voters are or they will face another disappointment in 2024,” wrote the board. “A total ban is a loser in swing states. Republicans who insist on that position could soon find that electoral defeats will lead to even more liberal state abortion laws than under Roe. That’s where Michigan is now after last year’s rout.”