Exactly a year ago, we were treated to a white, male-dominated national political press that just couldn’t grasp how galvanizing abortion had become to liberal voters in the wake of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
After Ohio’s stunning repudiation of their Republican Party’s efforts to covertly end abortion rights in the state, the political press is no longer under such illusions. But the Republican Party? Apparently, their self-inflicting beatings will continue.
It bears revisiting just how difficult it was for the broader political establishment to fully grasp the impact of abortion on the electoral landscape. This Twitter thread is a stark reminder of so many of these winning pre-2022 election hot takes:
At Campaign’s End, Democrats See Limits of Focus on Abortion. “Shock and outrage over the fall of Roe v. Wade has faded as confusion has spread, deflating Democrats’ hopes that the issue could carry them to victory.” - The New York Times
Do voters care about abortion heading into midterms? “A recent poll found abortion was only the fifth-most important issue.” - ABC News
Why Biden’s closing argument worries some Democrats and could miss the mark with midterm voters - USA Today
How Democratic leaders have failed in their abortion rights response. “Democrats failed to grasp the breach in our political reality caused by the overturning of Roe v. Wade.” - MSNBC
Democrats focused on abortion rights worry they’re losing independent women - The Hill
Dems are suddenly playing defense on abortion - Yahoo News
You get the point. No one is writing those headlines anymore.
Thing is, the Republican Party is obsessed with “messaging” and the use of mass media to create new realities and achieve power. Indeed, over the past 40 years they rode Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, AM talk radio, and social media channels to power. It is no accident that Donald Trump was a reality TV personality. While Democrats have traditionally suffered too much from trying to intellectually sell policy, Republicans mastered the use of emotional resonance to win converts. That’s why Trump can win without having a single policy agenda to run on. Remember, the Republicans outright ditched their party platform in 2020.
Republicans got so far by manipulating the media space that they actually believed they could create their own reality. That’s not an exaggeration. This is Karl Rove in 2004:
The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' ... 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do'.
This “new reality” plays out every single night on Fox News, where primetime hosts juice stories intended to damage Democrats and ignore the fascist peril at the door.
Certainly, some of that 2022 preelection narrative was self-inflicted. As our own Jeff Singer at Daily Kos Elections once quipped, “Are you a Democratic operative who's nervous about an election? Talk to a therapist, not a reporter." But the narrative that abortion had failed to galvanize Democrats was driven for the most part by Republicans and their network of bullcrap pollsters working to create Karl Rove’s “own reality.” They so fiercely believed in their inevitable red wave electoral victory that the rest of the political press meekly followed along, “studying that reality.”
Not us at Daily Kos. We argued from the start of the cycle that the twin issues of democracy (MAGA and Trump) and abortion would galvanize Democratic turnout, offsetting the usual midterm slump that historically proved deadly to the party in the White House.
The political press may have moved on, but Republicans still can’t quit their obsession with “message” and its role in one abortion-related electoral defeat after another.
Laura Clawson already ran through a lot of the initial Ohio Republican excuses: abortion backers didn’t have enough time to get their message out (they picked the date of the initiative); they were outspent by out-of-state money (they were funded by an Illinois billionaire, and you don’t lose by 14 points because of money); and best of all, not enough Republicans supported it. (You’d think they get the hint that maybe if even Republicans don’t support something, then it is out of the mainstream!)
Excuses aside, the bigger question is what Republicans are going to do about it. And quite clearly, the answer is “more of the same.”
“We think there’s a lot of people that, when we start telling the story of how extreme the abortion referendum is, will be jumping over to our side,” said Aaron Baer to Politico. He is the president of the Center for Christian Virtue and a board member of the coalition working to defeat Ohio’s November abortion-rights initiative. “We actually saw a lot of encouraging signs.”
See? It always comes down to messaging with them. If only “the story” is told properly, then a new reality could be created! Why, once they hear the same message they’ve already been hearing for time immemorial, 14% of voters will jump over to their side!
It wasn’t easy for progressives to win Tuesday’s referendum. It took a great deal of hard work. The word “abortion” appeared nowhere in the text. The forced-birthers knew exactly what the referendum was about and openly bragged about it, but the “no” side had to educate the state’s electorate about its true intent.
Give abortion rights an up or down vote, with those words explicitly in the ballot language, and what makes these political reactionaries think people will respond more favorably than they did in Kansas, Kentucky, or Montana—all of them states more conservative than Ohio? Kentucky is a whopping 48% evangelical, the highest of any state. And it still failed.
Yet they keep thinking the same tired anti-abortion “message” that has cost Republicans so much since last year’s midterm elections will somehow flip the mass of public opinion in their direction.
“They were running ads about drag queen story hour. That’s not even compelling to me as a pro-life voter,” said Patrick Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, to Politico. “You have to break out of that silo and talk to people who are on the fence, [and] that script doesn’t work for them. You have to find the language that resonates with them ... and the other side has been very effective at that when they talk about freedom and limited government.”
Brown called the Ohio results a “five-alarm fire for the pro-life movement” and argued that conservatives need to start pushing a compromise. “Some think that only a total ban is acceptable. But we see, over and over again, that such an uncompromising position doesn’t have support. There’s no political appetite for that,” he said, pointing to the obvious.
Yet that’s a no-go position for the anti-abortion movement. They spent the last 50 years screaming that abortion was murder, and there is no turning back. There is no true compromise they will accept now. Roe v. Wade was the compromise. The Politico story quotes an anti-abortion organization as countering that a 15-week ban would still allow over 90% of abortions. (The exact number is 93%.)
The anti-abortion zealots in the conservative movement certainly have zero appetite for backing down.
“Overturning Roe V. Wade is the greatest accomplishment the conservative movement has had since the end of the cold war,” said Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. “We should be proud of it. And build on it. Not run away from it.”
She’s not wrong—it is the conservative movement’s greatest accomplishment. Their problem isn’t that they pulled it off, the problem is that few people wanted them to pull it off. Their bubble insulated them from the mass of public opinion on the issue, their gerrymandered legislatures in places like Ohio created the illusion of majority appeal. And the undemocratic rural-dominated Senate and gerrymandered U.S. House made it seem as if the issue was more 50-50 than in reality. The truth is that two-thirds of Americans oppose the Republican position on abortion, and it’s hard to win elections with just a third.
Meanwhile Ohio Republicans aren’t backing down, nor is the architect of this failed ballot initiative, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s likely opponent in next year’s Senate race. “You know, I think that the Supreme Court decision pushing this down to the states is a reasonable approach for now. But as I told you, I’m pro-life and if a pro-life measure comes before the Senate, then I would vote as a pro-life American,” he told Chuck Todd on NBC News. We can bet that Brown will make that a key tenet of his reelection campaign.
Asked on Fox News what message Ohio had delivered to him by defeating his ballot initiative, LaRose said, “Ohio stood with us,” which was just weird and clearly wrong. He concluded that “this is just one battle in a much larger war. Because the all-out assault is coming from the radical left ... the war continues. I've just begun to fight." He called Ohio’s abortion rights amendment this fall “radical,” and of course veered into anti-trans bigotry—exactly the same failed message that the aforementioned conservative Patrick Brown says has already failed so miserably.
But even the Fox host’s question was telling: “your amendment … failed, what’s Ohio telling you?” To bring Rove’s famous quote back into this, it’s time to “study that reality.” That one is actually real.
Despite Ingraham’s cheerleading for this losing cause, even the Fox News bubble can’t fully protect Republicans from their harsh political reality.