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Ohio Democrats see abortion restrictions as an opening against DeWine

Nan Whaley, the first woman to win a major party's nomination for governor in Ohio, has refocused her campaign around abortion rights in what has become a reliably red state.
Nan Whaley, Mayor of Dayton, Ohio, speaks during a news conference with Democrats from Congress at the Capitol on Sept. 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, Ohio, speaks during a news conference with Democrats from Congress at the Capitol on Sept. 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

CLEVELAND — When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, Ohio’s previously unconstitutional “heartbeat bill” that effectively bans most abortions snapped into place.

For Republicans, including Gov. Mike DeWine, an abortion-rights foe who signed the bill into law, it was a political victory. But the decision also handed Democrats in an increasingly red state an energizing cause matched by bipartisan public opinion as they aim to unseat DeWine this November.

Nan Whaley, the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in the state, quickly refocused her campaign and pledged to lead a ballot initiative to write Roe’s protections into the Ohio Constitution 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 drifting away from the GOP.

"I think it’s going to be hugely galvanizing for the vote in November," said Katie Paris, the Ohio-based founder of Red Wine and Blue, a national group that organizes suburban women. "What I’m finding is that these are not partisan conversations."

Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, has been a DeWine foil since leading her city through a deadly mass shooting in 2019, after which the governor continued to sign into law bills friendly to the gun lobby. After Roe’s demise and recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and Highland Park, Illinois, Whaley believes she offers a unique message for the moment.

"I am sad that these are the issues that we’re fighting in Ohio," Whaley, 46, said this week in an interview with NBC News. "Frankly, it’s made the stakes of this race incredibly high, almost to a place that’s uncomfortable for me, because I know what’s at stake come Nov. 8 if we’re not successful."

Days before the anticipated Supreme Court decision, DeWine told Ohio Right to Life members that he favored going "as far as we can to protect human life" once states had more constitutional leeway to do so, The Columbus Dispatch reported. To the wider public, DeWine tempered his enthusiasm, acknowledging hours after the ruling that he was pleased but also that his position places him to the right of many, if not most, voters.

"As the issue of abortion returns to the states, how we debate it is so very important," DeWine, 75, said in an address to Ohioans after the decision. "It’s going to be very easy to let this debate get rough and tough, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with spirited debate. However, we must do it in a way that recognizes that smart, sincere, dedicated and caring people can have very, very different and equally heartfelt views."

The Supreme Court decision could turn some moderates against DeWine. Genevieve Hoffman, an attorney 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 will vote for Whaley in November.

"Because Roe was so settled for me, in the past I still felt comfortable voting for candidates who did not share that view," said Hoffman, who has shared her concerns with Red Wine and Blue leaders. "After Roe, I’m realizing clearly it is no longer settled law. I cannot in good conscience vote for a candidate who continues to take away women’s rights."

Ohio voters polled in May by Suffolk University before the Supreme Court’s decision rated abortion as the second-most important issue in the governor’s race, after the economy. Overall, a plurality of respondents — 48% — said they opposed overturning Roe v. Wade.

But even with a timely signature issue, Whaley is the underdog. Ohio has elected only one Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, in the last 32 years. With few exceptions, Republicans have held a lock on other state offices and the Legislature since then. Former President Donald Trump won the state twice by 8 percentage points. And this year’s midterm elections could be especially brutal for Democrats given how unpopular President Joe Biden is.

Because of the GOP’s dominance in Ohio, a voter-driven initiative like the one Whaley has proposed is the most viable path toward codifying abortion rights. And Whaley has relevant experience. In 2011, she worked on the campaign that overwhelmingly repealed a law aimed at crushing public-employee unions.

"People don’t like that they’re being governed the way they’re being governed," Whaley said. "You need to go to direct democracy to make it happen."

Lacking precise ballot language to parse, Republicans have accused Whaley of favoring abortion without limits. A Harvard University/Harris Poll conducted after Roe was overturned found that while 55% of registered voters nationally opposed the decision, most also said they believed their states should impose some restrictions on abortion.

"Nan Whaley’s campaign is drowning and desperately seeks terra firma," said Bob Paduchik, the state’s GOP chair. "Surprisingly she has chosen to stake her entire political career on embracing the most radical of abortion positions — zero restrictions until the moment of birth." 

Whaley disputes that characterization. Her goal, she said, is to enshrine in the Ohio Constitution the rights that were in place before the Supreme Court’s decision. Until then, states could not ban abortions before fetal viability, or about 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

Other Whaley critics assert that voters will be moved more by economic issues.

"Abortion is No. 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, these issues come before the issue of abortion."

That argument in particular upsets those who champion abortion rights.

Women account for more than 50% of the population in Ohio "and a significant part of the electorate," said state Rep. Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat who is running for Congress in a competitive district this fall. "To suggest that it's not that important would be shortsighted."

"This is very much an economic issue," Sykes added. "When you see surveys as to why people seek abortion care, people do talk about the inability to care for another child."

Whaley sees encouragement in higher turnout at events. A protest at the Statehouse days after the Roe ruling drew 5,000, according to state party officials.

Liz Walters, the state Democratic chair, said women have stopped her in public restrooms on at least four recent occasions to vent about the Supreme Court decision. A party operative for years, Walters had never before encountered such frustration.

"There are these moments," she said, "when you see things move an electorate."