Beshear and Youngkin Bet Their Election Nights on Abortion. Only One Had a Winning Hand

Beshear and Youngkin Bet Their Election Nights on Abortion. Only One Had a Winning Hand

When the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in 2022, conservatives rejoiced over what they saw as a major victory. But seventeen months later, Republicans are feeling the political consequences of that decision.

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On Tuesday, voters across the country delivered a series of decisive victories for abortion rights, underscoring a stark contrast between Democratic candidates who championed abortion access and Republicans campaigning to uphold abortion bans. Outside of Ohio, where abortion access was enshrined in the state constitution, the winning abortion messaging was particularly evident in Kentucky and Virginia, where candidates’ positions on abortion access played a pivotal role in determining the electoral outcomes.

In Kentucky, a solidly red state, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear sailed to a second term after running a campaign that attacked his opponent for supporting the state’s near-total ban on abortion. Whereas in Virginia, Democrats took control of the state legislature after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin promised he’d use a GOP majority to pass an abortion ban—a strategy that may cost Youngkin a potential springboard to national ambitions.

The election results signaled that the fight to regain reproductive rights has become one of the most potent issues in motivating Democrats to vote, and may be an issue that persuades Republicans to vote for Democrats. It also signaled that opposition to reproductive rights is just as unpopular this year as it was last November, when voters demonstrated strong support for abortion access even in Republican-leaning states.

“The simple fact is the abortion issue, especially in the post-Roe world, gives the Democrats energy and it fuels turnout,” says Tucker Martin, a veteran Virginia GOP strategist. “That’s not going away. Republicans will have to adjust accordingly and focus on issues that can have the same effect on their base… Getting caught up in a back and forth on abortion is generally not where you want the conversation to be.”

Some Republicans, including Youngkin, tried to soften their pitch on abortion in an attempt to appeal to moderates after strict bans challenged many GOP candidates in last year’s midterms, but the election results on Tuesday highlighted the party’s continued vulnerability on the issue. In Virginia, conservative state lawmakers and Youngkin tried to win over moderates with a 15-week abortion ban that provided exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. But instead, Youngkin not only failed to flip the state senate but also lost control of the house, delivering a major blow to his agenda.

“This is a huge defeat for Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who invested much of himself in a number of targeted campaigns across the state,” wrote Bill Bolling, the former Republican lieutenant governor of Virginia. In one of the state’s most contested races, Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg flipped a Republican-held seat in the suburbs of Richmond after emphasizing his commitment to protect abortion rights in the state, while his opponent, Republican Siobhan Dunnavant, made a 15-week abortion ban a cornerstone of her campaign. 

Meanwhile in Kentucky, Beshear won re-election in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1996, a feat Democratic strategists say he accomplished by pledging to protect abortion access and blasting his challenger, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, for supporting an abortion ban without exceptions for rape and incest. Last year, voters there declined to amend their state constitution to clarify that it does not protect the right to abortion, underscoring a deep disconnect between voters and the near-total abortion ban that took effect in Kentucky after Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion, fell last summer.

In the months leading up to election night, Democrats had spent millions of dollars to tell voters that GOP lawmakers couldn’t be trusted to set state abortion policy. Beshear’s campaign ran an ad featuring the story of Hadley Duvall, who was raped by her stepfather when she was 12 and blasts Cameron’s support for Kentucky’s abortion ban. “This is to you, Daniel Cameron,” Duvall said to Beshear’s opponent. “To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.” The ad rattled Cameron, who backtracked on his stance during the campaign and said he would sign exceptions for abortions in cases of rape and incest if legislators passed them.

For Democrats, the slate of abortion-related wins underscored that support for abortion access has only become more popular since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. A Gallup poll released this year found “a record-high 69% say abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy” and a near record percentage believe abortion “should be legal under any circumstances.”

Former White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Fox News Tuesday night that the election results continued “the losing streak in the pro-life movement” and added that Republicans need to coalesce around a national strategy to “help vulnerable women because the results of next year’s election could be determined by that.”

It remains to be seen whether Republicans will adjust their anti-abortion message, but some are skeptical that abortion is the problem. “Republicans did not lose because of abortion itself, it’s how the party handles the issue or rather does not handle the issue,” Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. She added that Republicans are losing voters because “the base is fed up with weak Republicans.”

Abortion rights advocates also won Tuesday in Ohio, where voters approved an amendment to the state constitution protecting access to the procedure until the fetus can live outside the womb, generally at about 23 weeks of pregnancy. The decision marked a significant rebuke to Republicans in the state legislature and GOP Gov. Mike DeWine, who in 2019 signed a ban on abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, which has been blocked in court for most of the past year. 

And in Pennsylvania, Democrat Daniel McCaffery won a state Supreme Court seat after running ads promising to defend abortion rights and voting rights, fortifying the court’s Democratic majority in a key presidential swing state.

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