Abortion has emerged as a defining fault line of this year’s elections, with consequential contests in several states on Tuesday offering fresh tests of the issue’s political potency nearly 18 months after the Supreme Court ended a federal right to an abortion.
The decision overturning Roe v. Wade scrambled American politics in 2022, transforming a longstanding social conflict into an electoral battering ram that helped drive Democrats to critical victories in the midterm races. Now, as abortion restrictions and bans in red states have become reality, the issue is again on the ballot, both explicitly and implicitly, in races across the country.
In Kentucky, Democrats are testing whether abortion can provide a political advantage even in a red state, as Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has used the state’s near-total ban on abortions — which was triggered by the ruling of Roe — to bludgeon his Republican opponent as an extremist. In Ohio, a socially conservative state, a ballot question that would enshrine abortion rights in the State Constitution will measure the extent of the country’s political pivot toward abortion rights.
And in Virginia, the only Southern state without an abortion ban, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, is trying to flip the script in the state’s legislative elections, casting Democrats as “extreme” and saying his party supports a “common-sense position” — a 15-week ban.
The contests give an early preview of how abortion will shape the political landscape in next year’s presidential and congressional elections — and the effectiveness of both parties’ approaches.
Strategists across the political spectrum agree that abortion remains highly energizing for the Democratic coalition, particularly in states where Republicans could pass further restrictions. In Pennsylvania, where the parties are battling over a State Supreme Court seat, even a gun control advocacy group began ads backing the Democratic candidate by raising alarms about the future of abortion rights — a tacit nod to the issue’s resonance.
“It’s still a very, very powerful issue for folks, both in terms of motivating Democrats to vote and as a very fruitful persuasion issue for swing voters,” said Angela Kuefler, a longtime Democratic pollster working on the proposed Ohio amendment.
What remains less clear is how far into conservative areas Democrats’ arguments will be effective and whether Republicans can deflect some of the attacks.
That’s what Republicans are trying to do in Virginia, where GOP candidates like State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN running in one of the state’s most hotly contested races for a newly redrawn seat, have aired numerous ads on the issue.
In one ad, she says, “I don’t support an abortion ban,” even though she supports a 15-week ban on the procedure with exceptions for rape, incest, the woman’s health and cases of several fetal anomalies. She argues that a 15-week restriction is not a ban but rather “legislation that reflects compassionate common sense.”
“Every Republican in a swing district knows the Democrat playbook that’s going to be run against them,” said Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist and ad maker working on the race. “The abortion issue can either define you, or you can define it in your campaign.”
Since Roe was overturned, Democrats have prevailed in six out of six ballot measures that put the question of abortion straight to voters. This year, national groups backing both sides have poured tens of millions of dollars into the Ohio contest, transforming an off-year ballot measure into one of the most important races this fall.
A victory in Ohio would provide further fuel for abortion rights efforts next year. That will be especially true in pivotal battleground states where campaigns are already underway, including Arizona, Florida and Missouri, said Amy Natoce, a spokesperson for Protect Women Ohio, a group founded by national anti-abortion groups to oppose the amendment.
“We know that all eyes are on Ohio right now,” she said. “States that are considering similar constitutional amendments are looking to us.”
In Kentucky, Mr. Beshear is further testing the limits of where abortion can mobilize a Democratic coalition. Since Roe ended, the state has become engulfed in a political battle over how abortion should be regulated. A trigger law that took effect immediately after the decision banned abortion in nearly all circumstances, except to save the life of the woman or prevent severe injury. Efforts by abortion providers to block the ban in court were denied.
Last failed, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have amended the state’s Constitution to ensure that no right to an abortion was in the document.
In his campaign ads, Mr. Beshear has focused on how his Republican opponent, Daniel Cameron, supports a near-total ban.
The Beshear campaign has aired some of the cycle’s most searing spots, including a straight-to-camera testimonial from a woman who was raped as a child by her stepfather. She says in the ad that Mr. Cameron would force child victims to carry the babies of their rapists.
“We have the most extreme law in the country, where victims of rape and incest, some as young as 9 years old, have no options,” Mr. Beshear said this past week in Richmond, Ky. “The people of Kentucky have enough empathy to believe that those little girls ought to have options.”
despues de the ad aired, Mr. Cameron, the state attorney general, flipped his position and said that he would support carving an exception in state law in instances of rape or incest. Even if Mr. Beshear wins re-election, he would most likely struggle to change the state’s abortion law because Republicans control the Legislature.
Courtney Norris, a representative for Mr. Cameron, said in a statement, “Andy mischaracterizes and flat-out lies about Daniel’s position on a number of issues in an attempt to deflect attention away from his failures as governor and his extreme record on this issue .”
Still, not every Democrat running in a red state has embraced Mr. Beshear’s approach. Just as in the midterms, when abortion benefited Democrats most in states like Arizona and Michigan, where the right to the procedure was directly at risk, Democrats are leveraging the issue race by race.
In Mississippi, Brandon Presley, the Democratic candidate for governor, has promoted his “pro-life” stance in television ads and has focused on issues like Medicaid expansion. And Shawn Wilson, a Democrat who lost the race for governor in Louisiana last month, said he was personally “pro-life.” Both are deeply conservative states where abortion is banned in almost all circumstances.
In Virginia, where abortion remains legal through the second quarter, Republicans are the ones mitigating their approach. Mr. Youngkin has tried to be proactive in his messaging on abortion, promising to sign a 15-week ban if he and his Republican allies take over both chambers of the Legislature.
Such a policy would have significant implications for the entire region, because Virginia has become a destination for patients across the South seeking the procedure. Currently, abortion remains legal in the state until nearly 27 weeks, and later if needed to save the life of the woman.
Most doctors say there is no medical basis for an abortion cutoff at 15 weeks of pregnancy. Nor would it stop the vast majority of abortions, given that more than 93 percent happen before that stage in pregnancy, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But 15 weeks is the point at which many polls indicate that a majority of Americans would support restrictions.
That’s one of the reasons Mr. Youngkin’s political committee has spent $1.4 million on ads pushing what the spots call a “reasonable” 15-week limit and accusing Democrats of disinformation as a heartbeat can be heard in the background. “Here’s the truth: There is no ban,” the narrator says.
National Republican strategists have been pushing that message as well, urging their candidates to embrace a 15-week ban and exceptions in cases of rape, incest and risks to the physical health of the woman — all relatively popular positions with the general public.
Zack Roday, a top political adviser to Mr. Youngkin, said Republicans were trying to reclaim and redirect the extremist label. He said Republicans needed to proactively neutralize that attack and create a “permission structure” for voters who are wary of GOP candidates’ stances on abortion but like their approach to other issues.
“They understand 40 weeks, no limits is extreme,” Mr. Roday said. “We’re trying to reclaim and beat that down. Because when you do, the voters will look at you more broadly.”
Democrats say there are significant complications to Mr. Youngkin’s strategy. Polls show that a plurality of voters dislike the Republican approach to abortion rights. In private meetings and investigation memos, even some Republican strategists have urged their candidates to move away from the “pro-life” label, saying that many Americans now equate the term with support for a total ban.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked for Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign in 2020, said that voters tended to see the issue of abortion as a fight over personal autonomy, and were less interested in litigating a number of weeks or specifics exceptions.
“Before Dobbs, people were very willing to entertain exceptions and restrictions,” she said. “Now they are much less open to that conversation because they just think there’s a bigger fundamental point here.”
She added, “The fundamental freedom to an abortion has been taken away, and we want to guarantee that right.”
State Senator Scott Surovell, the campaign chairman of the Virginia Senate’s Democratic caucus, said abortion remained the No. 1 issue driving people to vote.
When Mr. Surovell first heard that Mr. Youngkin’s operation was planned to spend more than $1 million on abortion ads, he said he felt like what “the Union troops thought at Gettysburg,” when the Confederate army made a famously ill-fated charge.
“You’re going to try to charge us here?” he said. “They’re going to try to attack us while we’re on the high ground here?”
Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting from Richmond, Ky.