CLEVELAND — When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month saw Ohio’s previously unconstitutional “heartbeat bill” which effectively banned most abortions.
For Republicans, including Governor Mike DeWine, an abortion-rights foe who signed the bill into law, it was a political victory. But the decision also gave Democrats in an increasingly red-hot state an energizing cause to live up to bipartisan public opinion as they aim to unseat DeWine in November.
Nan Whaley, the first woman to win a major party nomination for state governor, quickly refocused her campaign and pledged to lead a ballot initiative to enshrine Roe’s protections in the Constitution of Ohio if she wins. Democrats see the issue as an X-factor that can activate a diverse and decisive coalition of voters, including suburban women who are moving away from the GOP.
“I think this is going to be extremely galvanizing for the November vote,” said Katie Paris, founder of Ohio-based Red Wine and Blue, a national group that organizes suburban women. “What I find is that these are not partisan conversations.”
Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, has been a foil to DeWine since leading her city through a deadly mass shooting in 2019, after which the governor continued to sign pro-gun lobby bills to fire. After Roe’s disappearance and the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and Highland Park, Illinois, Whaley thinks she offers a unique message at the moment.
“I’m sad that these are the issues we’re battling in Ohio,” Whaley, 46, said this week in an interview with NBC News. “Frankly, it’s made the stakes in this race incredibly high, almost to a place that’s uncomfortable for me, because I know what’s at stake on November 8 if we don’t get it right.”
Days before the Supreme Court’s expected ruling, DeWine told Ohio Right to Life members he favored going “as far as possible to protect human life” once states have more leeway. constitutional to do so, reported The Columbus Dispatch. To the general public, DeWine tempered his enthusiasm, acknowledging hours after the decision that he was satisfied but also that his position puts him to the right of many, if not most, voters.
“As the issue of abortion returns to the United States, how we debate it is very important,” DeWine, 75, said in an address to Ohioans after the ruling. “It’s going to be very easy to let this debate get rough and tough, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with a heated debate. However, we have to do it in a way that recognizes that intelligent, sincere, dedicated people and caring people can have very, very different points of view and just as sincere.”
The Supreme Court’s decision could turn some moderates against DeWine. Genevieve Hoffman, a lawyer in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, was a registered Republican who considered herself fiscally conservative and socially liberal. She said she voted for DeWine in 2018 but would vote for Whaley in November.
“Because Roe was so pleased with me, in the past I always felt comfortable voting for candidates who didn’t share that view,” said Hoffman, who shared his concerns with executives. Red Wine and Blue. “After Roe, I clearly realize that this is no longer settled law. I cannot in good conscience vote for a candidate who continues to disenfranchise women.”
Ohio voters polled in May by Suffolk University ahead of the Supreme Court ruling ranked abortion as the second most important issue in the race for governor, after the economy. Overall, a plurality of respondents – 48% – said they opposed the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
But even with a timely signing issue, Whaley is the underdog. Ohio has elected only one Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, in the past 32 years. With few exceptions, Republicans have blocked other state offices and the Legislature since then. Former President Donald Trump has won the state twice by 8 percentage points. And this year’s midterm elections could be particularly brutal for Democrats given the unpopularity of President Joe Biden.
Because of GOP dominance in Ohio, a voter-focused initiative like the one Whaley proposed is the most viable route to codifying abortion rights. And Whaley has relevant experience. In 2011, she worked on the campaign that overwhelmingly repealed a law aimed at crushing public service unions.
“People don’t like being ruled the way they are,” Whaley said. “You have to move to direct democracy for that to happen.”
Lacking precise voting language to parse, Republicans accused Whaley of favoring abortion without limits. A Harvard University/Harris poll conducted after Roe’s overturn found that while 55% of registered voters opposed the decision nationwide, most also said they believed their states should impose certain restrictions on abortion.
“Nan Whaley’s campaign is drowning and desperate for dry land,” said state GOP chairman Bob Paduchik. “Amazingly, she has chosen to bet her entire political career on taking the most radical positions on abortion – zero restrictions until the moment of birth.”
Whaley disputes this qualification. Her goal, she says, is to enshrine in the Ohio Constitution the rights that were in place before the Supreme Court’s decision. Until then, states couldn’t ban abortions before fetal viability, about 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
Other critics of Whaley say voters will be hit harder by economic issues.
“Abortion is number 1 for people like me and maybe some of the Republican base,” said Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis. “But if you ask the average Democrat or independent in Ohio, gas prices, food prices, inflation, the economy — I mean, those issues come before the question of abortion.”
This argument particularly disturbs those who defend abortion rights.
Women make up more than 50% of Ohio’s population “and a significant portion of the electorate,” said state Rep. Emilia Sykes, a Democrat from Akron who is running for Congress in a competitive district. this autumn. “To suggest that it’s not that important would be short-sighted.”
“It’s really an economic question,” added Sykes. “When you see surveys of why people seek abortion care, people talk about the inability to care for another child.”
Whaley sees encouragement in higher attendance at events. A protest at the Statehouse days after the Roe ruling drew 5,000 people, according to state party officials.
Liz Walters, the state’s Democratic chairwoman, said women stopped her in public restrooms at least four times recently to vent about the Supreme Court’s decision. Party agent for years, Walters had never encountered such frustration before.
“There are those times,” she said, “when you see things move an electorate.”