Ballot measures are often dry affairs in which citizens are asked to weigh in on things like transportation bonds or other arcane funding issues. But this month, a ballot measure in Ohio is proving to be controversial as Republicans in the state are trying to leverage the culture wars to get the vote to go their way. If passed, the initiative, called State Issue 1, would require future ballot measures to pass with 60 percent of a statewide vote instead of the 50 percent currently needed.
State Issue 1 has big implications for the state of democracy in Ohio. The initiative was proposed by Republican legislators and their anti-choice activist collaborators in order to head off ballot measures that may protect access to abortion. In other red states like Kansas, abortion rights have been preserved following ballot measure votes. These ballot measures are one of the only ways for liberals to end-run around gerrymandered conservative state legislatures in order to protect basic rights like access to abortion care.
All of this comes a year after the fundamental right to abortion access was wiped out by the radical conservative U.S. Supreme Court. In today’s political environment, anti-abortion laws have proven to be extremely unpopular. The issue has rallied women, particularly suburban women, to be more active politically, even in ruby red states like Kansas, which passed its own abortion rights ballot question in 2022 and elected a Democratic governor.
This, in turn, has triggered an alarm within the conservative project, which now sees its tenuous (and very gerrymandered) grip on electoral power begin to slip even in more conservative parts of the country.
In this environment, Ohio conservatives and anti-choice activists are loath to even mention the word “abortion” in campaign ads arguing for the measure. Instead they’re leaning into the conservative biggest conservative obsession issue of today to sway suburban voters: transphobia.
According to a Cleveland.com report, the conservative group Protect Women Ohio announced last week that they’d be spending USD $3 million on ads to help pass the measure. Rather than make an honest argument against abortion access (the reason they support passage of the ballot measure in the first place), the Christian conservative group’s ad instead portrays a drag queen, with a voiceover saying that voting for Issue 1 would “keep this madness out of Ohio classrooms” (there is no relationship between State Issue 1 and educational curriculum).
“When we go up on TV, is it going to be on abortion? Probably not,” said Aaron Baer, a leader with Protect Women Ohio and the Center for Christian Virtue told Cleveland.com.
But a closer look at Protect Women Ohio reveals the real truth. The group is not, in fact, a group of concerned moms, as its carefully crafted media image may suggest. Instead, it’s a conglomeration of anti-abortion groups from the state, including Ohio Right to Life, Center for Christian Virtue and Right to Life Action Coalition of Ohio, which was founded in February, according to an Ohio Capital Journal report earlier this month.
The fight over State Issue 1 in Ohio tells an important story about modern conservative politics. Ohio is the state which, just last year, drew intense scrutiny after it forced a 10-year-old rape victim to seek an abortion in neighbouring Indiana due to its own strict abortion ban. Horrific stories about abuses of pregnant women under harsh conservative state regimes are quickly emerging in the post-Roe political era and unsurprisingly, independent and Democratic voters are incredibly fired up to fight back at the ballot box.
The current political environment is the perfect breeding ground for a political paradigm shift that threatens to marginalize conservative viewpoints— even in previously red states. In response, without much to offer in the way of positive or constructive policy proposals to attract voters, conservatives are turning to the one little trick that they’ve always turned to in an emergency: demonizing a minority.
The anti-trans movement has seemingly swept across the country of late. A single beer can sent to a trans social media influencer triggered a massive boycott of Bud Light, knocking the brand off its perch as the most-consumed beer in America. Violent protests against drag shows have proliferated across the nation and seemingly everyone and their grandpa has suddenly declared themselves experts in women’s swimming after a trans swimmer performed well at Ivy League swim meets.
Opposing trans lives has become the foremost focus of the modern conservative party, in part because they have little else to say, policy-wise. And proponents of State Issue 1 are following a similar pattern.
Conservatives have long been searching for a breakthrough with suburban voters, and many see leaning into transphobia as the way to connect with the suburban mom-and-pop voters they’ve struggled with of late. Protect Women Ohio has made a similar calculation under the hope that scare-mongering about trans people will win the day for State Issue 1.
But transphobia has long been an election loser for conservatives. The only prominent Republican incumbent to lose in the 2016 red wave election that swept Donald Trump into the White House was North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, the architect of the original “bathroom bill,” HB2. Similarly, anti-trans candidates across the nation were largely wiped out in races for everything from school boards to the U.S. Senate in 2022.
State Issue 1 in Ohio will similarly test this Republican strategy. Will Ohio women see through this campaign and recognize that Protect Women Ohio actually represents hurting Ohio women? I think they will, but only time will tell.