Ohio Republicans choose to fight abortion amendment the hard way

The GOP has a sterling record at the ballot box, so why are they taking a circuitous route and alienating traditional allies to fight a potential abortion amendment?

By: - May 17, 2023 5:00 am

COLUMBUS, Ohio — MAY 10: Hundreds of protesters against SJR 2 fill the rotunda before the Ohio House session, May 10, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Earlier this month the Ohio Republican Party central committee met in a downtown Columbus ballroom. The state party has a lot to celebrate. Republicans across the country underwhelmed in 2022, but not in Ohio. The GOP carried the big-ticket statewide races, won every state supreme court race and two ballot measures.

But the prevailing mood was a cocktail of triumphalism, frustration, and fear. Plenty of committee members took a victory lap, but their boasts were often framed as a warning.

“We’ve changed this state from purple to red,” David Glass said as he cautioned fellow members that a “right to work” platform would threaten that success.

Echoing Glass, LeeAnn Johnson, wife of Congressman Bill Johnson, described moving to a solid blue Mahoning County in 2006.

“I have watched this region turn slowly into a very red, very Republican, very pro-Trump district,” she argued. “And we have had so much support from the trades from the unions and placing this plank in our platform is going to ostracize the very people that worked hard to get President Trump elected in Ohio.”

On a state supreme court endorsement proposal one member insisted, “we must endorse today, we absolutely have to.” Even the primary election in that race is still a year out. But other members justified the urgency by warning that Democrats — who they handily defeated about six months ago — are already campaigning.

That sense of precariousness — that Republicans’ success rests on a knife’s edge — may reveal a lot about the supermajority ballot measure likely headed for the August ballot.

An abortion rights amendment might go to voters in November. But rather than fight that on the merits, Republicans are doing it the hard way — forcing a debate over how to amend the constitution that threatens to alienate traditional allies and drive a wedge further into the party’s Statehouse supermajority.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — MAY 10: State Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, speaks in favor of SJR 2 during the Ohio House session, May 10, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Breaking norms, testing loyalties

Last week the Ohio House advanced SJR 2, clearing the way for a ballot measure asking voters whether it should take 60% support for future constitutional amendments to pass. On the House floor, Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, attempted to maintain the fig leaf that his effort is issue-neutral.

However, when Stewart first introduced the proposal last year, in a memo to fellow lawmakers he cited only two issues for them to support the move: stopping an abortion rights amendment and preventing further anti-gerrymandering reform. Moreover, it’s become increasingly clear — from lawmakers, from interest groups and from central committee members — that the ballot measure is a way to handicap the abortion rights amendment.

Abortion-rights amendments were passed in 2022 by voters in Kentucky with 52.3%, Montana with 52.5%, Michigan with 56.6%, and Kansas with 59%.

Ohio lawmakers first tried to get the matter on the May primary ballot. The last time the general assembly sent a measure to voters in an odd year primary was 1973. A handful of organizations offered support, but it was conspicuously lukewarm. Ironically, the only organization to show up for legislation meant to fight “out of state special interests,” was the Florida-based special interest group Opportunity Solutions Project.

In the most recent effort, more conservative organizations came out of the woodwork, but the issue clearly remained a minefield.

As hearings began, Ohio Chamber of Commerce president Steve Stivers was reticent to embrace the effort. Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups like the Center for Christian Virtue and Ohio Right to Life spoke out forcefully in favor of the plan — making specious anti-trans arguments and invoking “parents’ rights.”

Ohio Chamber of Commerce President Steve Stivers. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images, 2017.)

After passage, the Chamber joined the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Ohio Restaurant Association in a statement expressing their support. Still, they were at pains to clarify their focus on “business issues” rather than social ones.

“For far too long, the Ohio Constitution has been an easy target for those seeking to enact anti-business policies or further narrow special interest initiatives outside of the traditional legislative process,” they wrote.

Around the same time the Chamber’s board voted to remain officially neutral on the abortion rights amendment. In a text message, Stivers insisted “we don’t take positions on social issues.”

But while the Chamber and other groups attempted to parse their support, the rhetoric was too heated for the Ohio Business Roundtable, and the organization refused to take a position.

“Based on the timing of this effort, we believe the initiative has become entwined with social issues,” its statement read. “The Ohio Business Roundtable does not get involved in social issues.”

Power Grab

The American Policy Roundtable is unequivocal when it comes to abortion.

“A near fifty-year battle entered the second round on July 24th,” the group wrote after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. “Life and the rule of law finally won the first round. Now by God’s grace we must together fight and win the next.

Still, APR vice president Rob Walgate bluntly dismissed the supermajority amendment as a “power grab.” From the first attempt at putting the measure on the ballot, APR has been notably outspoken in its opposition.

Growing exasperated, Walgate pointed to the track record of citizen-initiated amendments.

“Look at that percentage — 19 out of 71,” he said. “Yet the Republicans tell us this is a major issue that’s going to cause major problems? And I’m like, 19 out of 71 in 111 years, and all of a sudden, we’re rushing through a deadline to get it on an August ballot?”

Walgate contends the approach is misguided, because the abortion measure Republicans want to defeat is vulnerable.

“I think an overwhelming number of Ohioans, a majority of Ohioans, would have rejected that language,” he argued. “But instead of having that fight, they’ve chosen a more difficult fight that will limit Ohioans voices and take away the power of the people.”

He argued that strategy is counterproductive. First, Republicans are dividing their efforts. Instead of simply fighting one amendment they’re now also campaigning to approve another. And second, Walgate said, pushing an amendment that undermines direct democracy will breed skepticism.

“When this 60% is defeated, it is going to give the left momentum,” Walgate said. “There’s no doubt about that. Ohioans are going to say, wait a minute, what’s going on here? Why are Republicans trying to take away power from the people?”

Making the case

Ralph King sits on the central committee for the Cuyahoga County Republican Party; he also helped found the Cleveland Tea Party Patriots. King unabashedly wants to see the supermajority measure pass, but he’s at least a little worried about what the effort has done to the party.

“Whether it’s over ‘Do you want cream in your coffee?’” King said, “anytime you have a five-month fight over something like this, absolutely it hurts the party. It hurts the base. It hurts the way voters as a whole look at the Republican Party.”

He blamed the delay on the fight over House Speaker. Specifically, the 22 Republicans who voted with Democrats to give the Rep. Jason Stephens control of the chamber.

King drew a distinction between the supermajority amendment and recent conservative candidates or ballot measures. The latter, he argued, were successful because they brought together a coalition of Republicans, independents and even some Democrats. But he warned the supermajority amendment isn’t going to win on the back of a single issue.

“They’re going to need all of us at the ballot box in August because a low turnout may not be good,” King said. “We’re going to need to turn out everybody, so you can’t alienate anybody by making it only about one thing.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio — MAY 10: Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis watches the House floor while the Highway Patrol removes everyone from the gallery during the Ohio House session, May 10, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis is already attempting to make that broader case. The anti-abortion organization was one of the loudest cheerleaders urging lawmakers to pass SJR 2 and get it on the ballot in August. In committee, their testimony explicitly linked the supermajority amendment with stopping the reproductive rights proposal.

“We can debate abortion, but this isn’t just about abortion,” Gonidakis argued a day before the House approved the measure. “This is about our Second Amendment rights, the family farmer, the small business owner. AFL-CIO is in the field right now collecting signatures to do mandatory minimum wage.”

Gonidakis acknowledged abortion is “the tip of the spear,” but insisted “this has to do with many fundamental issues, and all we’re asking the voters of Ohio is — what do you want your standards to be?”

Will it work?

Any effort to broaden the supermajority amendment’s appeal is lost on Walgate.

“Everyone knows what it’s all about!” Walgate said. “Everyone knows what it’s all about.”

Protect Choice Ohio, the organization behind the reproductive rights amendment, certainly had no illusions about lawmakers’ intent. Dr. Lauren Beene, excoriated the General Assembly’s “craven political maneuvering, hypocrisy and lies” shortly after the vote.

“The desperate plot to silence the voters will fail,” she added. “We are confident Ohioans will defeat the anti-democracy amendment in August, then pass our reproductive freedom amendment this fall.”

Despite Republicans’ recent run of success at the ballot, Gonidakis was quick to bring up Barack Obama and Sherrod Brown, insisting Democrats can be formidable when they have good candidates.

Perhaps abortion presents a similar challenge.

Certainly, Kansas’ referendum last year demonstrated that even in red states there’s a limit to anti-abortion efforts. Voters there soundly rejected an amendment removing a constitutional right to abortion. Notably for Ohio the winning side fell just shy of 60%.

Now, Ohio Republicans are facing a contest in which some of their allies are sitting out entirely, and many of those who are participating feel compelled to attach disclaimers on their support. It’s also not entirely clear they’ll actually get their question on the August ballot.

Meanwhile their opponents are fielding a coalition that includes organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police that tend to lean rightward. They’ve also picked up the backing of four recent governors and five attorneys general representing both sides of the aisle.

All the sponsors’ and supporters’ high-minded arguments notwithstanding, the only reason to hold the vote in August is to harm the reproductive rights amendment. Viewed through that lens, Republicans’ effort looks less like a concerted effort to ‘protect the constitution,’ and more like a desperate roll of the dice to forestall a contest they don’t think they can win.

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.


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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.