Ohio's abortion-related ballot vote: Takeaways and political fallout

The referendum could've made it harder to codify abortion rights in the state.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Republicans suffered their latest electoral setback on a vote related to abortion, this time over a referendum in Ohio on Tuesday, leaving party operatives who spoke with ABC News saying the same thing: The GOP still hasn't figured out how to talk about the issue.

The conservative-led effort in Ohio would have raised the threshold for future changes to the state constitution from 50%-plus-one to 60%. It failed by a 14-point margin.

Citing comments by a leading Republican in the state who said the change was an effort to curb future abortion access, opponents of the effort linked the vote to an election question later this year over whether to add abortion protections to the Ohio constitution.

The defeat compounds similar results since last year that were about or associated with abortion in other states, included in typically Republican-leaning terrain like Kansas and Kentucky.

With Ohio, specifically, some strategists argued there may have been obstacles with the nature of the proposal.

"The way this initiative was written in the first place was probably not the best way to go about it," said one GOP strategist with experience in Ohio.

"Swing voters and a lot of Republicans just don't like the idea of changing the state constitution. So if you go into a ballot initiative and you're undecided, you're going to err on the side of 'don't make any changes.' ... I also think people forget about this a lot: If you poll it, around 30% of Republicans nationally identify as pro-choice [favoring abortion access]," the strategist said.

Abortion is thought to have played a notable role in the 2022 midterms -- the first after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade -- and exit polling showed it was top of mind for voters in some states.

In those elections, Democrats limited their losses in the House and expanded their Senate majority despite widespread expectations of a red wave given President Joe Biden's unpopularity and concerns over inflation.

Critics said Tuesday's ballot measure was organized during a rushed August special election in order to head off the abortion access amendment that was recently added to November's election.

"We know that the special election was put ahead of the November vote because our opposition saw the support ... And they wanted to get ahead of us," Lauren Blauvelt, co-chair of Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, the umbrella organization leading the effort to enshrine abortion access in the Ohio Constitution, told ABC News at an election night victory party in Columbus.

Democrats knew ahead of Tuesday's vote that a victory for their anti-ballot initiative coalition would add to the pile of wins they've racked up during their battle for increasing abortion access via referenda. (Anti-abortion proponents counter that they have seen state success as well, with governors like Georgia's Brian Kemp supporting major restrictions and remaining popular.)

"Kansas was an emphasis for the anti-abortion movement in this country for many years. But that amendment [winning] last year gave me hope. Why? Because people there rose up. It wasn't just Democrats. It wasn't just independents. It wasn't even just moderate Republicans," Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Ken Martin said at a canvassing kick-off in Dublin, Ohio on Saturday.

Nearly 700,000 Ohioans voted early, either in person or by mail, which is nearly five times the amount of voters who cast ballots in last August's primaries and far outpaces the 288,700 people who voted early for the May 2022 primary election, when competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races were on the ballot.

Total turnout came close to some recent general elections. The unofficial election results from Tuesday show a 38.54% turnout across the state, which is just a 14% drop in in-person Election Day ballots cast during the November 2022 general election.

The Republican operatives who spoke with ABC News said Ohio's election underscored the risk that abortion as an issue still poses to the GOP's aspirations for taking back the White House and Senate.

The Ohio referendum's supporters initially cast their campaign as an effort to protect the state constitution from outside special interests who might use ballot measures to make unacceptable changes to public policy.

But opponents mounted their own campaign around drumbeat messaging that Tuesday's vote was a proxy for abortion access.

"You need to get up early and define the issue. The other side got up with more than three weeks of saturating level advertising, defining the issue before the 'yes' side even got up," said one Ohio GOP strategist. "And you look at the early voting returns, the die was cast."

The referendum took place against the backdrop of the Republican presidential primary, with White House hopefuls in the party staking out their own messaging on abortion.

Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the two leading contenders in the race so far, have largely avoided answering when asked about what kind of abortion legislation they'd sign into law if they become president.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has said he'd fight for a 15-week ban at the federal level, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley earlier this year teased a major policy speech on the issue only to call for "compassion."

Former Vice President Mike Pence has been the strictest in his policies, citing his long-standing commitment to restricting abortion as part of his Christian faith and saying he would ban the procedure even for nonviable pregnancies.

Pence was the only GOP candidate for president to urge a vote on the ballot measure ahead of the election, coming out with a video on Tuesday morning where he said a "yes" vote would "save Ohio."

Beyond a cutoff time for abortion restrictions during pregnancy, Republicans across the country have also found little consensus on exceptions for instances of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.

But the results in Ohio and elsewhere are leading some in the party to say that there is too great an electoral risk in supporting too strict of a ban.

"A six-week abortion ban at the federal level is absolutely a loser. Part of this is how you message it," said the strategist with experience in Ohio. "How about a 15-week national minimum standard with the three exceptions? That doesn't sound as terrifying as an abortion ban. I don't think you lose the middle when you get to something like 15 weeks with the reasonable exceptions."

Anti-abortion groups, who are influential among the Republican base, have repeatedly and publicly pressed candidates to support strict stances, saying anti-abortion voters favor that commitment.

After Tuesday's vote, the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America said in a statement that "it is a sad day for Ohio and a warning for pro-life states across the nation." The group added, "A broad coalition of passionate pro-life Ohioans came together to ... try to take victory from the jaws of defeat."

Conservative operatives said candidates' lack of flexibility on policy can make some races harder to win.

"In more competitive districts, you oftentimes have Republican candidates whose position on abortion is not as hard-line as more rural or right-to-life-type organizations positions are. And that's why that issue in different places needs to be litigated differently by those candidates," said Ohio GOP strategist Nick Everhart.

Until that happens, though, the Republicans who spoke with ABC News forecasted more defeats -- including in November, when Ohioans will vote on adding abortion protections to the state constitution.

"While it might have been possible to keep this campaign away from the issue in the fall, I think messaging-wise, some things get crossed-winded," Everhart said. "I think what we saw is really an early version of what the result in the fall election is going to be on this specific issue in Ohio."