Analysis: Can an anti-abortion rights Republican win a Senate race in Ohio?
On Nov. 7, we found out for certain what most people have known intuitively for years: that a solid majority of Ohio voters support women's right to an abortion.
Fifty-seven percent is hard to argue with.
And that 57% vote came not only from Democrats but from Republicans and independents as well. Had to. The math doesn't work otherwise.
But, in the March 2024 primary, Ohio's Republican voters will go to the polls and chose one of three U.S. Senate candidates to run against Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown in a contest that could have an enormous impact on the balance of power in the Senate.
A make-or-break contest for both parties.
The three GOP candidates are Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, State Sen. Matt Dolan of Chagrin Falls, and luxury car dealer and blockchain entrepreneur Bernie Moreno of Cleveland.
All three of them opposed Issue 1, the reproductive rights constitutional amendment, and all three proclaim themselves to be "pro-life" candidates.
All three of them have expressed support for a national abortion ban in one way or another.
LaRose and Moreno say they would vote for such a ban if they are in the Senate; Dolan has said he would give a national ban "a second look" if more states pass abortion rights laws — something that is very likely to happen in red, blue and purple states.
Sherrod Brown, on the other hand, is 100% pro abortion rights and was ecstatic about the results on Issue 1.
It was the second time in three months that Ohio Republicans tried and failed to stop Ohio voters from approving abortion rights.
In a special election on Aug. 8 — an election LaRose pushed for — Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected another Issue 1. This one would have raised the bar for passage of future constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60%.
Ohio voters saw though it; they knew it was a last-ditch attempt to defeat the reproductive rights amendment that was headed for the November ballot.
So how can an anti-abortion candidate win in 2024 in a state that has already made it crystal clear where it stands on abortion rights?
It depends on who you ask.
Other issues at play
David Niven, professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said there is little chance that a Republican anti-abortion rights candidate can walk back his position in a general election.
"It's not easy to do," Niven said. "You can't just go out and pretend you don't have extremist views on this, views that aren’t shared by most Ohio voters.
"It's a long hike, but you could walk across northern Ohio from Toledo to the Pennsylvania border without setting foot in a single county that voted no on Issue 1. That's how deep the support was."
On the same day that Issue 1 passed in Ohio, Niven said, abortion rights supporters were winning in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, and in Virginia, where the state legislature turned blue and rejected the Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's call for an abortion ban.
The only time running away from beliefs on anti-abortion rights has worked for an Ohio Republican was in 2022, when Gov. Mike DeWine, a lifelong abortion opponent, went silent on the issue in his campaign against Democrat Nan Whaley, an abortion rights proponent.
"Think about how DeWine ran away from abortion," Niven said. "He went dark on it. He wouldn't talk about it. He refused to debate Whaley. He avoided the issue altogether.
"I don't think any one of these Republican candidates can do that in a general election against Sherrod Brown."
Mark R. Weaver, a longtime Republican campaign strategist in Ohio, is convinced that very few voters will be voting on their abortion beliefs next year, when there is a presidential contest on the ballot.
"Only the most extreme ends of the abortion debate — pro and con — will base their vote in the Senate race on how the candidates feel about abortion," Weaver said. "The number is in the single digits on both ends. The vast majority of voters will be voting because of the candidates' stances on other issues."
The 2024 election will be decided, Weaver said, "on a vast number of issues — inflation, national security, the threat of war, how they feel about Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
"Abortion won't be much of a factor," Weaver said. "I don't think any of those Republican candidates have much to worry about on that score."
Nonetheless, in this age of politics, nothing a candidate does or says ever goes away. It is preserved on video or on social media, probably for eternity.
Brown's campaign no doubt has a quite a collection of anti-abortion statements from LaRose, Dolan and Moreno.
You will see those statements scattered among the TV ads for Brown in 2024. Democrats will use their words to further fire up their base voters in Ohio, who will turn out next year in huge numbers.
LaRose, Dolan and Moreno staked out their ground on abortion a long time ago. One of them will end up having to live on that ground.