Ohio Issue 1 takeaways: Abortion still a winning issue for Democrats

A de facto referendum on reproductive rights failed in Ohio’s special election despite the state’s Republican lean.

Deidra Reese stands behind a podium with a sign that reads: No on Issue 1.
Deidra Reese, statewide program manager for the Ohio Unity Coalition, celebrates the defeat of Issue 1 on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio. (Jay LaPrete/AP)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The failure of Issue 1 in Ohio is another swing election win for Democrats supporting abortion rights in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned last year — and another loss for Republicans who are pushing anti-transgender talking points.

Republicans in the Ohio Legislature spent $20 million on the first statewide election to be held in August since 1926 to have voters decide a single issue: Should it be harder for citizen-led initiatives to amend the state constitution via ballot measure?

The vote was a de facto referendum on abortion, held in advance of a second ballot measure in November that will decide whether or not to establish protections for reproductive rights into the state constitution. Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed a law banning almost all abortions in 2019, but that measure is currently tied up in court.

The campaign for Issue 1 — which lost decisively on Tuesday — warned Ohioans about the dangers of out-of-state donors changing state laws, with a focus on the stripping of parental rights and concerns about gender. Yet despite Ohio’s Republican lean, the message failed to resonate with voters.

'Extreme gender ideology agenda'

A screengrab of an ad supporting Issue 1 in Ohio.
A screengrab of an ad supporting Issue 1 in Ohio.

One group supporting Issue 1, Protect Ohio Women, spent millions in ads on the race. In a television spot titled “Your Promise,” a young girl is shown as a narrator says, “You promised you’d keep the bad guys away. Protect her. Now’s your chance. Out-of-state special interests that put trans ideologies in classrooms and encourage sex changes for kids are hiding behind slick ads.”

In a radio ad from the same organization, the narrator says that the groups against Issue 1 support kids being able to get “a sex change without parental sign-off.”

But Protect Ohio Women wasn’t the only one pushing this message. In a video expressing his support of Issue 1, former Vice President Mike Pence urged a yes vote, saying that outside influences wanted to “advance their extreme gender ideology agenda and take away parents’ rights in education.”

Teenage anti-trans activist Chloe Cole attended a rally in support of the ballot measure over the weekend and tweeted afterwards, “Ohio is activated and is leading the midwest away from radical gender ideology.” In recent years, numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures have looked to limit or ban gender affirming care for minors.

A string of anti-trans losses

Janet Protasiewicz.

In a key Wisconsin Supreme Court race in April, conservative candidate Daniel Kelly was supported by a series of ads and text messages stating that his opponent, liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz, and “her woke allies want to TRANS our children without notifying parents.” Protasiewicz won the race comfortably, and when she took her seat earlier this month, the court shifted to a liberal majority.

In advance of last year’s midterms, a group run by former Trump White House aide Stephen Miller spent millions on ads targeting gender-affirming care for minors in swing states. Democrats would go on to have one of the most successful midterms in history for a party that held the White House, retaining the Senate and barely losing the House despite predictions of a “red wave” that would sweep Republicans into power.

Michigan was among the states where Democrats had particular success last November. In the aftermath, Michigan GOP chief of staff Paul Cordes blasted the focus on the issue by his party in a postmortem memo, writing, "There were more ads on transgender sports than inflation, gas prices and bread and butter issues that could have swayed independent voters."

Abortion rights continue winning streak

A girl and her mother hold signs reading: Keep the law away from our bodies and Keep your religion away from my uterus.
Giuliana Cangelosi, left, and her mother, Nichole, at an abortion rights demonstration in Kansas City, Mo. (Emily Curiel/The Kansas City Star via ZUMA Press Wire)

Ohio Republicans held the vote on Issue 1 in August, hoping reduced turnout in the summer months would help its chances. It was the same tactic used by the Kansas GOP last year, when a ballot measure that would have eroded abortion protections in the state constitution was held in August instead of November.

That attempt was rejected by voters by nearly 20 points and started a wave of wins for supporters of abortion access. In Ohio, turnout was extraordinarily high for a late-summer special election.

Democrats found success running on abortion in the 2022 midterms, flipping a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania in a race that focused on the issue in its final days. Ballot measures supporting reproductive rights were passed in states with a range of political leanings: California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont.

In January, Democrats flipped a Virginia state Senate seat in a special election, a win that effectively ended Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s plans to restrict abortions in the state.

The decisive April victory in Wisconsin was another win for abortion rights, as Protasiewicz focused on the issue from the beginning of her campaign, saying in her first television ads that she “believes in our freedom to make our own decisions when it comes to abortion.”

Because Ohio's Issue 1 failed, the ballot measure that would enshrine the right for every Ohio resident to “make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions” in the state constitution needs only 50% to pass in November. A poll last month found support for protecting abortion rights at 58%, in line with a survey last fall that found it at 59%.