(Reuters) -Republican vulnerabilities on abortion policy are on display in Ohio, with the party playing defense against a surge in abortion rights activism that could help President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party in next year’s elections.
The Republican-controlled legislature on Wednesday approved a measure intended to make it more difficult for voters to approve a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights that Democrats and activists are working to get on the ballot in November.
Abortion rights advocates have racked up electoral victories, lifting Democrats along the way, since the Supreme Court struck down the national right to abortion last year.
This year’s elections in Kentucky and Virginia, along with the Ohio ballot initiative, could add to that momentum.
Ohio is considered a long shot in 2024 for Biden, who lost the state by eight percentage points in 2020. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown’s re-election bid is widely seen as one of the top 2024 Senate races as Democrats try to maintain a razor-thin majority.
“Ohio is a must-win Senate race for Democrats,” said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Ohio Republicans approved a bill on Wednesday over Democratic objections setting an August special election for citizens to vote on whether to require 60% support to pass ballot initiatives like the proposed abortion rights amendment, rather than the simple majority currently required.
The proposed abortion amendment has gotten about 60% support in Ohio-based opinion polls. Since the Supreme Court decision, ballot referendums in other states, including Democratic-leaning Michigan, have seen between 50% and 60% of voters show support for abortion rights – but none has exceeded 60%.
“They’re coming for this ballot measure with everything they’ve got,” said Rachel Sweet, who led campaigns in 2022 that defeated anti-abortion ballot initiatives in Kansas and Kentucky.
Ohio Republicans passed a six-week state abortion ban in 2019, but that law is blocked while litigation proceeds.
Many Americans support some limits on abortion but most voters – including a significant slice of Republicans – oppose severe restrictions or total bans, which have multiplied since the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Among Republicans, a strong anti-abortion stance is important for winning primaries but can hurt in general elections, said Republican strategist Sarah Longwell.
“The gap on this issue between base voters and swing voters is very wide,” Longwell said.
A March Reuters/Ipsos poll found 43% of respondents who identified as solidly Republican said they were less likely to support a presidential candidate who backed severe abortion restrictions, compared to 77% of Democrats. Among independents and people who said they leaned toward one of the parties, 68% said they were not fond of anti-abortion hard-liners.
Republicans did not perform as well as had been expected in the November midterm elections, with strategists in both parties attributing Democratic strength in part to higher support from women who back abortion rights.
In Michigan, voters approved a state constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights, and Democrats won majorities in both state legislative chambers for the first time in decades.
Ohio’s signature drive will help identify voters for efforts to raise turnout next year, Democrats said.
Abortion is certain to play a role in other 2023 races. In Virginia, where a slim Democratic majority in the state Senate has stymied efforts to restrict abortion by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, Democrats have signaled they will make abortion a central issue in November’s legislative elections.
In Republican-leaning Kentucky, abortion rights activists are already knocking on doors ahead of November’s gubernatorial election, when Democrat Andy Beshear is seeking another term.
Ohio’s top elections official had set a Wednesday deadline for lawmakers to approve an August special election. The state Senate passed the proposal in April, but the House vote came down to the wire after some Republicans were critical of its costs and wary of making the election about abortion.
Democratic lawmakers held up signs and chanted in protest after Wednesday’s vote.
Senate President Matt Huffman has made clear the measure is aimed at the abortion rights amendment.
“If we save 30,000 lives as a result of spending $20 million, I think that’s a great thing,” Huffman told reporters in March, referring to estimates on the annual number of abortions in Ohio.
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