Will abortion tip Ohio’s political balance? Primary turnout says maybe

History suggests that the 2022 election should see Republicans trounce Democrats, and until recently all indications were that that would be the case.

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the federal right to abortion guaranteed since 1973 by Roe v. Wade, may alter that expectation.

Normally the party that holds the presidency loses seats in midterm elections, said Lee Hannah, Wright State University associate professor of political science. That’s been the case every time this century except 2002, when Republicans benefited from a burst of support following the Sept. 11 attacks.

With President Joe Biden’s approval rating below those of Donald Trump or Barack Obama at similar points, Democrats should be expected to lose badly, Hannah said. But the backlash to Dobbs and other recent Supreme Court decisions could mitigate that.

“There is some early polling evidence that suggests that Democrats are more motivated at the moment,” Hannah said. “Fifty percent of Democrats, compared to just 20% of Republicans, responded that the Dobbs decision will make them more likely to vote in the midterm election.”

Asked what issues are most important to them, voters are naming guns, abortion and preservation of democracy, he said.

“Republicans want to see voters mobilized by the economy, gas prices, and inflation. And that might have been the sole focus were it not for these major Supreme Court decisions,” Hannah said.

The issue could impact two elections in Ohio: the Aug. 2 partisan primary for state House and Senate seats and the Nov. 8 general election for those seats and statewide offices including governor.

The issue has been part of the Ohio governor’s race from the start. Incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has usually avoided commenting directly on abortion-related proposals but has signed bills drastically restricting abortion access and signaled tacit support for more.

Until at least mid-April, DeWine’s campaign website touted him as “the most pro-life governor in Ohio history,” highlighting his signature of the “Heartbeat Bill” and the “Born Alive Infant Protection Act.” By mid-July, however, the site no longer mentioned abortion at all.

“We did a website revamp so the language is new,” Tricia McLaughlin, director of communications for DeWine’s campaign, said via email. “Of course, the governor is pro-life and was proud to sign the Heartbeat Bill into law – Ohioans know that. The governor is proud of his pro-life record and has never shied away from that.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley, former mayor of Dayton, has said she would work to keep abortion accessible to Ohioans and would veto any bill that restricts abortion access. Since the Dobbs decision, Whaley has said she would “fight to enshrine the protections previously afforded in Roe into the Ohio Constitution.”

Turnout turnabout

Turnout for the Aug. 2 primary is expected to be low, perhaps in the single digits as a percentage of registered voters, due in part to the splitting of the election between May 3 and Aug. 2. That was required because of the 10-month legal wrangle over legislative district maps.

It was evident from May primary results that Republicans were already enthusiastic about voting this year, while Democrats were not, said Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling seems to have changed that dynamic.

“For Republicans, it’s something of a ceiling effect. How much more determined to vote could they be? Not much,” he said. “But Democrats needed this. The abortion ruling was a reminder that voting makes a difference, and that there are stark differences between the parties, particularly on this issue.”

Ballots to overseas voters and active-duty military for the Aug. 2 election went out June 17, while regular absentee ballots and in-person early voting became available July 6.

According to numbers reported this week by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, something is driving higher-than-expected Democratic turnout. Nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans have requested absentee ballots: 28,178 to 16,229. As of Wednesday morning, 3,154 Democrats had cast early in-person votes compared to 2,564 Republicans.

“Despite the Aug. 2 primary not including any marquee statewide races, we’re seeing stronger turnout than expected across Ohio,” LaRose said in a news release. “Every election is important, and that is why it’s all the more imperative that we encourage our friends, neighbors, and colleagues to participate in these decisions that will significantly shape our state’s future.”

Although the number of ballots returned so far is small, they appear to show Democrats overperforming across the board – sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, according to totals reported this week by LaRose’s office. That’s true even in areas without contested primaries on the Aug. 2 ballot, compared to how Miami Valley counties voted in the 2020 election.

The biggest disparity is in Greene County, which voted 59% Republican in 2020. Of the 265 early votes returned by mid-week, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly four to one.

In Montgomery, the only area county which voted Democratic by a slight majority in 2020, Democratic early votes outnumber Republican by more than two to one.

There are contested Republican primaries for state House seats in parts of Butler, Champaign, Greene and Warren counties, and a contested Democratic House primary in Warren. The degree to which Democrats are overperforming so far seems to show little relation to whether local legislative primaries are contested.

Hopes and chances

Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses of the General Assembly and hope to hold it with the aid of Republican-drawn maps for state legislative districts. The Ohio Supreme Court has thrown out those maps as unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans, but a panel of federal judges ordered their use only for the 2022 election.

Those maps would ostensibly create 54 Republican and 45 Democratic House seats, with 18 Republican and 15 Democratic Senate seats, close to the balance sought by the Ohio Supreme Court as reflecting Ohioans’ actual statewide voting preferences. But of those, 19 House and seven Senate seats would lean Democratic by less than 4%, while no Republican districts would be that close.

Thus in a strong “Republican year,” as 2022 was anticipated to be, Republicans might take most or all of those barely Democratic-leaning seats. But an energized Democratic electorate could thwart that hope.

Opposition to abortion has historically been an effective driver for Republicans, but some people may not like how far new restrictions go, Hannah said. Also, Democrats and some independents didn’t really believe Roe would go away, he said.

“Now that the precedent is struck down, we may see that abortion rights becomes a bigger mobilizer than it has been historically,” Hannah said. “This is especially likely to be true among women voters. If the Dobbs decision is as vilified by Democrats as the Roe decision was vilified by Republicans, then it’s likely to remain a central issue for the foreseeable future.”

Statewide, Republicans have outvoted Democrats by about 54% to 46% in the last few elections.

“I imagine the issue will be more galvanizing to Ohioans since the ‘Heartbeat Bill’ went into effect. But the Democrats didn’t field strong candidates in some congressional and state legislature races, and Republicans performed very well statewide in 2018 in spite of a good national environment for Democrats,” Hannah said. “I’m not sure if the Dobbs decision can shift the landscape that much, but it certainly seems like the Democrats’ best shot is to mobilize on abortion access.”

In a case that got national attention, media reported this month that a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio sought an abortion just three days after the Dobbs decision. Following that ruling, the court order which had prevented implementation of Ohio’s 2019 “Heartbeat Bill” was lifted, and the girl was past that law’s six-week limit. She reportedly had to travel to Indianapolis for the procedure.

The girl’s name was not revealed, and some Republicans publicly doubted whether the story was true, including Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Then on Tuesday a 27-year-old Columbus man was arrested and charged with rape in the case.

Rising stakes

Beyond the “Heartbeat Bill,” there are further abortion restrictions already before Ohio legislators:

· House Bill 480, which would allow private citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who perform or “aids or abets” an abortion, or has “taken action or made statements” indicating they plan to do so.

· House Bill 598 and Senate Bill 123, which would make it a felony to perform an abortion without independent written confirmation that it’s necessary to prevent the mother’s death or permanent serious injury. That includes providing abortifacient medication.

· House Bill 704, the “Personhood Act,” which would make abortion illegal from the moment of conception, except when the mother’s life is in danger.

None of those bills include exceptions for rape or incest. Under Ohio law in force even before the “Heartbeat Bill’s” implementation, most abortions were already illegal past 20 weeks’ gestation, or 22 weeks past the mother’s last menstrual period.

“One thing about this ruling (Dobbs) is that it puts the issue of abortion in the hands of the states,” Devine said. “That’s all the more reason for people to vote in the state legislative primaries on Aug. 2, and to vote for state legislators as well as the governor and other statewide offices in November.

“Democrats are still at a disadvantage here; the president’s party usually does badly in the first midterm election, and Democrats are getting the blame for inflation. But if there’s anything that can get them back in the game – by energizing voters, activists, and donors – it might be the court’s ruling on abortion.”

Chris Corba, executive director for the Dayton Area League of Women Voters, said it’s apparent there is substantial interest in state House and Senate races.

“We receive calls every day from voters asking about the candidates running for office in their district. Of those calls, we get roughly the same number of requests about Republican and Democratic candidates,” she said. “As an organization dedicated to encouraging active participation in democracy, we want everyone to exercise their right to vote and to communicate with their elected officials about issues that are important to them.”

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