Voices: The next states to face a perilous test for abortion access

Incumbent Democratic Governor of Kentucky Andy Beshear speaks to the press and supporters on his last campaign stop before the election on November 6, 2023 in Louisville (Getty Images)
Incumbent Democratic Governor of Kentucky Andy Beshear speaks to the press and supporters on his last campaign stop before the election on November 6, 2023 in Louisville (Getty Images)
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A year ago female voters and their allies shocked much of the political world when they tempered what should have been a Republican wave election, leading to Republicans barely winning the House, flipping only one governorship and zero Senate seats.

The results were a response to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson decision, which overturned Roe v Wade. Tuesday night will provide the next test to see if abortion remains salient enough to move Democratic voters, even in staunchly Republican states. My colleague John Bowden wrote about many of the details, but here’s a quick breakdown.

In Kentucky, Democratic Gov Andy Beshear is seeking re-election against Attorney General Daniel Cameron. By all accounts, Mr Beshear should be toast. The son of a popular former governor, he is a Democrat in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020.

But Mr Trump and Mr McConnell might have to reap the Dobbs effect they sowed when they confirmed the three Supreme Court justices that made the high court’s decision possible. Abortion is illegal in the state, but Mr Beshear has run on protecting abortion rights. His campaign ran an ad featuring a young woman named Hadley who said that her stepfather raped her when she was 12, criticising Mr Cameron for opposing exceptions for rape and incest.

On the surface, it might be surprising to see a white Democrat in Appalachia campaign so heavily on abortion rights. But last year, Kentucky voters beat back an amendment to the state Constitution that said there was no right to an abortion.

Polling shows a dead heat race, but the fact that a Democrat is even viable in Mr McConnell’s backyard where white Democrats are considered an antiquity is a testament to the salience of abortion in the state.

Meanwhile, just across the river in Ohio, voters will vote on an amendment to its state’s Constitution that would guarantee “a fundamental right to reproductive freedom.”

Ohio has mostly shed its old status as a bellwether state and has become more solidly Republican in recent years. Mr Trump won the state by eight points in 2016 and 2020 and despite severely underperforming the rest of the GOP ticket, Sen JD Vance still won the state by six points. The Buckeye State now has only one statewide elected Democratic official, Sen Sherrod Brown, who is running for re-election next year.

Earlier this year, as it looked like the initiative would be on the ballot in November, Republicans in the state tried to raise the threshold to amend the state constitution, requiring 60 per cent of the vote to amend the state constitution. That attempt ultimately failed.

Lastly comes Virginia. Gov Glenn Youngkin’s victory and Republicans’ flipping of the state house of delegates in 2021 in a state Joe Biden won by 10 points the year before punctured the idea that Virginia was a solidly blue state. Democrats have hoped to make abortion rights a salient selling point.

For his part, Mr Youngkin hopes to flip the narrative on abortion. Mr Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia political action committee recently ran an ad saying “there is no ban” and said instead that Republicans in Virginia support a “reasonable limit” of 15 weeks on abortion.

Of course, this is a distinction without a difference and it is not clear whether Virginians will buy this. The election in Virginia matters for multiple reasons. With North Carolina banning abortion at 12 weeks, Virginia is the last bastion for abortion access in the South, which worries supporters of abortion rights and makes Republicans see it as a prime target.

Similarly, given that Virginia limits governors to serving one term at a time, Mr Youngkin, a political neophyte who took out former governor Terry McAuliffe, has his eyes set on the national stage and many have floated the idea of him running for president either in 2024 or in 2028.

The closeness and uncertainty of the races in these states – two of which are staunchly Republican and one that is a firmly purple one – shows just how salient the issue of abortion is. If Mr Cameron wins or Republicans in Virginia hold the legislature or even gain seats, it would show that Republicans have figured out how to calm voter anxiety about abortion. But if Mr Beshear wins, Ohio passes its amendment or Democrats hold off the GOP in the Old Dominion, it will show that abortion still has a massive mobilising effect, particularly among college-educated female voters in the suburbs.