Voters aren't fooled by Republican lies on abortion — and Democrats are benefiting at the ballot box

In Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia, polls showed Americans will turn out to protect reproductive rights

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 8, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Voters check-in at a polling location on November 7, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio. (Andrew Spear/Getty Images)
Voters check-in at a polling location on November 7, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio. (Andrew Spear/Getty Images)

If you want to understand why Donald Trump has a near-inevitable lock the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, despite his unsubtle longing to end democracy, look no further than the issue of abortion rights. Republicans really want childbirth to be mandatory but the strong majority of voters disagree. It's one of many reasons right wing voters and GOP leaders cling to Trump harder as he vows revenge on all those who stopped his fascist coup. 

But Republicans aren't quite powerful enough, yet, to ban abortion without ever having to answer to the voters over it. Ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, voters have repeatedly expressed their outrage at the polls. Not only do people turn out to back ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights, Democrats who run on the right to choose have been overperforming at the polls. It's one reason some observers feel that, despite President Joe Biden's poor poll numbers now, he has a good chance of winning in 2024. 

In response, Republicans haven't backed off their anti-choice views. Instead, the've tried to bamboozle the voters into thinking that Republicans aren't as radical as they really are. Republicans have played word games, hoping that by rebranding with terms like "pro-baby" or bullying journalists into using the "limits" instead of "bans," they could somehow trick people into not noticing their rights are being stripped.

Tuesday's election showed voters are not fooled.

Overall, the election was a solid reminder that voters may be confused on issues from the economy to labor rights, but on one thing, they are quite clear: They do not like abortion bans. And they keep making that view known at the polls. 

In Ohio, the anti-choice cheating was egregious to a level that would be comical, if it weren't for the "trying to force child rape victims to give birth" part. When reproductive rights activists successfully petitioned to include a ballot intiative to protect abortion rights in the November election earlier this year, Republicans reacted by holding a pre-emptive August election to make it harder for ballot initiatives to become law. When that off-year mid-summer effort failed, Republicans launched a broad campaign of flat-out lying about the ballot initiative.

It started with the language on the ballot itself. The amendment voters were asked to consider Tuesday enshired into the state's constitution the "right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions" while allowing that "abortion may be prohibited after fetal viability." Despite this, the extremely anti-choice Ohio state secretary, Frank LaRosa, forced language onto the ballot falsely claiming the amendment would "always allow an unborn child to be aborted at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of viability." Gov. Mike DeWine, another Republican, repeated the lie in an ad. Having gotten away with putting a lie directly onto the ballot, Republicans felt free to lie about the amendment in every other way. They falsely claimed it would end the state's parental notification law. Ohio Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno falsely declared it would allow a rapist to "force" his victim to get an abortion. (The opposite is true — the amendment prevents rapists from forcing childbirth on victims.) And in a real stretch, Republicans ran ads with the outrageous lie that the amendment encourages "sex-changes for kids." 

Most Americans, including a not-small chunk of Republicans, have come around to taking a dim view of the sex negativity that fuels the anti-choice movement.

It's not mysterious why Republicans felt the need to lie. Polling showed 58% of Ohioans supporting enshrining reproductive rights into the state constitution ahead of Tuesday's vote. The only chance for anti-choice forces to win was to confuse the voters about what, exactly, they're even voting on. But voters were not fooled. Despite every effort by Republicans to lie, confuse and distract the public, people turned out and they supported abortion rights. As a result, Ohio became the first red state to enshrine such protections for reproductive rights in the constitution. 

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In Kentucky, Republicans successfully forced an abortion ban after Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health that only 12% of voters approve of. 

Despite the fact that he can't do much as governor to fix the situation, incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear campaigned strongly on the abortion issue, using it to paint his Republican opponent, Daniel Cameron, as a far-right extremist. Cameron, the state's attorney general, defended the abortion ban in court. One ad singled out how the ban forces rape victims to give birth. 

Beshear was a popular governor for many reasons, including fond memories of how he handled the pandemic. But still, it's a minor miracle that he won the deep-red state, one of the few Democrats in modern history to win multiple elections in the South. He won so handily that the election was called by Dave Wasserman of the Cook Report a mere 23 minutes after the last polls closed. 

As many feminists have pointed out, this suggests that the abortion issue isn't just about the pragmatic concerns people have about the health and safety of those who can get pregnant in their lives. It's a stand-in for a larger set of concerns about the threats to democracy and the power that a fundamentalist minority is trying to seize over the lives of ordinary people. Kentucky is very Republican. Being "liberal" is still deeply stigmatized. But voters clearly still like having one Democrat in place to keep a check on the dark urges of the Republicans they feel pressured, for tribalistic reasons, to keep voting for. 

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In Virginia, the abortion issue was a live one going into Tuesday, as a Republican takeover of the state legislature will likely lead straight to the Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, banning abortion in the last remaining free state in the South. Recognizing that this is a losing issue for Republicans, Youngkin has gone around making empty promises of a "compromise" of banning abortion after 15 weeks. He also talks around the issue using garbled language meant to confuse people. 

As this language about "progress" on abortion bans suggests, however, there's good reason to think Youngkin has no plans to keep the ban at 15 weeks. He refuses to say he would veto bans that are even more draconian than that. It's a bit of subterfuge that lets him have it both ways: Play a "moderate" while reserving the right to sign the same near-total abortion ban that passes pretty much every state legislature where Republicans gain control.

With abortion rights a controlling issue on Election Day, Virginia Democrats were able to command full control of the general assembly by flipping the House of Delegates and holding the majority they’ve had in the Senate since 2020. 

Of course, an October poll from the Washington Post showed 60% of Virginia voters rated abortion as "very important" this year, and pro-choice people were more likely than anti-choice people to say that. 

Meanwhile, Democrats in Mississippi seemed stuck in the idea that they need to pander to the religious right by running an anti-abortion gubernatorial candidate. But Brandon Presley got face-stomped at the polls. For those who listen to feminists, this was entirely predictable. In 2011, many years before Roe was overturned, Mississippi voted down a ballot initiative to ban abortion with a healthy 58% majority. 

As feminist writer Jessica Valenti explained in her newsletter, support for abortion rights has been steadily rising since the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision. The drumbeat of horror stories about the effects of abortion bans means "Americans are starting to understand that pregnancy is too complicated to legislate." 

I'd argue that it goes deeper than that. Abortion stands in for a growing American consensus that fundamentalist Christian views on sexuality are extreme and weird, and certainly should not be imposed on normal people by legal fiat. There's a reason late night talk show hosts mocked the new GOP Speaker of the House for having an app on his phone letting his teenage son police his porn usage. Most Americans, including a not-small chunk of Republicans, have come around to taking a dim view of the sex negativity that fuels the anti-choice movement. As long as the GOP clings to Victorian views on human sexuality, they are going to pay a price at the ballot box. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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